Conversations regarding the mandating of vaccines basically boil down to one area of contention: personal liberty. This is entirely understandable, necessary, and even good, as there can be no conception of morality or self-determination of one’s life without the potential for someone to choose the right path through their own actions. It is absurd to imagine determining the best decision in a situation or trying to pursue one’s ideal life without having the choice to make these decisions, because this requires liberty. So, when I hear arguments against the idea of mandating vaccines for citizens in a specific group, these arguments can usually be summarized as: “The government, or whatever the governing authority is in this situation, should not make and enforce this decision for individual citizens, as it infringes on their personal liberty.” I argue that this is rooted in a faulty perspective on the issue of vaccines—that it is an issue of individual choice, responsibility, and morality, rather than an issue of the public good beyond the individual.
Now, issues regarding public welfare and the general wellbeing of a large community are tricky and multifaceted (hence the heated dialogue regarding vaccine mandates). For issues like drinking and driving and violence, we are generally in agreement: even though these actions are based in someone’s individual decision-making, we believe that these actions should not be permitted explicitly because of the harm these actions inflict, or potentially inflict, on others. A surgeon can decide that he is fit to perform a surgery after three or four drinks, or a pilot can decide to fly after getting high, but nearly nobody would permit them to do so because of the potential negative consequences these will have on others. To a large extent, this is why we have a government, judicial system, and law enforcement in the first place: individuals are severely limited in their own ability to prevent harm from coming to themselves and others, and the establishment of these governing bodies serves the purpose of establishing security and safety for the citizens governed, ensuring the wellbeing and safety of those citizens. It has great potential to be corrupted, which is why democratic participation and the preservation of individual rights and liberties are extremely important, but issues regarding public welfare do fall squarely on the governing authority’s shoulders.
Now, back to vaccines. It is absurd to view the decision to get a vaccine as strictly an individual, self-determining decision, simply due to the potential and strong likelihood of these illnesses spreading to others, causing severe harm and death. To the extent that the decision to take a vaccine is made strictly with reference to one’s own health, and the potential that the illness in question has to harm oneself, then yes, the decision to take a vaccine is strictly individual. But in any environment outside of pure isolation, where anyone interacts with anyone else, this decision is inherently communal—what diseases someone is immune to or not has a major impact on this person’s surrounding community.
For example: measles is a disease that is entirely preventable through vaccination, and for a long period of time in America there were no new cases of measles due to the populus being vaccinated and no new cases developing for a time. In 2019, however, a single person infected with measles entered Disneyland, exposing hundreds of people to the functionally extinct illness and contributing to a widespread uptake in measles cases this year. Fatalities due to preventable, vaccinatable illnesses are highest and most widespread in communities with low vaccination rates, and are nearly always linked to an individual with the contagion spreading it to others through carelessness. The potential to contract and spread Covid-19 goes down immensely with a full vaccination, making it paramount for the health of the community that individuals within it receive vaccines to prevent the spread of a potentially and frequently fatal illness. Public health is not an issue of individual morality, but of collective wellbeing.
Another example: Every year, over 10,000 people in America die from an accident caused by a drunk driver. As of October 6th, 353,000 Americans have died from complications due to Covid-19 in 2021 alone. This is shortly over 9 months. It would take somewhere around 30 to 35 years for the average death toll caused by drunk driving to match the death toll of 9 months of Covid-19. Every fatality from a drunk driving accident is directly caused by an individual’s decision to drink and drive, putting others and themselves in harm’s way. In like manner, every fatality from Covid-19 is directly caused by an individual’s choice to remain unvaccinated, increasing their chances greatly of spreading the illness to others who may be more vulnerable than them. And yet we still view vaccination as an issue of individual choice and self-determination, outside of the public sphere, while drunk driving is a crime that affects the welfare of others. This is logically incomprehensible.
Therefore, vaccines are not, strictly speaking, an issue of personal liberty, but of the collective wellbeing and protection of others—which is the responsibility of the authority governing the community. Through not mandating vaccines, the American government has been responsible for deaths comparable to those of decades of drunk driving, all in the name of personal liberty, despite the issue being outside of this realm entirely. The responsible thing for a governing body to do is mandate vaccines for the governed—not to lessen their individual liberty, exert undemocratic control, or enter the private sphere in an unwelcome way, but plainly and simply, to protect and serve the people.