Maxwell J. Smith contests the argument that vaccine mandates should be avoided because they cause social division and unrest, as reflected by the so-called “freedom” convoy.
Some are likely to point to the social division and unrest exhibited by the so-called “freedom” convoy and argue that this is evidence vaccine mandates are a bad idea: “See! You shouldn’t use vaccine mandates because that’s what you get.” For a multitude of reasons, I think this argument is unpersuasive and, in fact, deeply problematic.
First, the convoy isn’t just about vaccine mandates, but rather “a sprawling campaign of grievances.” Consequently, it is hasty to think that the protests, if we can call them that, should be a reason to remove vaccine mandates specifically. Since the convoy represents an attempted referendum on a multitude of public health measures, one should revise the argument to say: “See! You shouldn’t use most pandemic response measures because that’s what you get.” And that’s an even less tenable position to hold. Furthermore, choosing to forgo existing COVID-19 vaccine mandates due to the unrest exhibited by the convoy ignores that some mandates have stronger ethical justifications than others (e.g., in hospitals vs. long-term care homes vs. at the border). This requires careful analysis and reason, not a knee-jerk reaction as a result of the convoy.
Putting that aside, the argument that vaccine mandates cause unrest, and that they should therefore be avoided, implies that these harms are worse than the harms averted by mandates. The argument implies that we should care more about averting the former, even at the expense of the latter. I don’t buy this. In addition to not being convinced that the social division and unrest are mostly attributable to vaccine mandates, the avoidable harm (and magnitude) of death, long COVID, severe illness, and overwhelmed hospitals that mandates aim to avert are in this case likely worse than the social division and unrest that could be attributed to the (judicious) use of mandates. Also, unlike deaths and the other COVID-related harms that mandates seek to avert, many of the harms associated with social division or unrest could plausibly be mitigated or compensated for either now or in the future. Additionally, because mandates have been used as an alternative to, for example, keeping borders or businesses closed, lockdowns, or requiring quarantine, one must consider the potential socioeconomic burdens that may be experienced if mandates were not used.
Another reason is that the “social division” exhibited by the convoy is arguably overstated. 89% of Canadians are vaccinated. 70% of Canadians support to some extent vaccine mandates for all non-exempt adults over the age of 18¾something we don’t even have anywhere in Canada. That number is even higher when circumscribed to the sorts of vaccine mandates we do have for COVID-19, for example for health care workers. And the majority of Canadians do not support the convoy. Canada also recently had an election where the Liberal government’s approach to pandemic response (including the use of vaccine mandates) was on the ballot. The People’s Party of Canada, whose platform reflected many of the concerns of the convoy, won 0 seats. The Liberals won 160 seats and as a result formed the government.
The argument also implies that the anger and mistrust felt by those opposed to mandates should have a greater influence on decision-making than the anger and mistrust likely to be felt by those protected by mandates were a decision to be made not to use them. And it assumes there would be no social division if a decision was made to not use vaccine mandates. Vaccine mandates are a public health tool that can help protect people in a pandemic. They are also widely supported by Canadians, and so not using a vaccine mandate for fear of backlash from a small group of people is similarly likely to generate anger, mistrust, and social division.
Finally, and most importantly, when confronted with a movement propelled by extremists and characterized as an “insurrection”, perhaps it would be more appropriate to counter the movement’s distorted views about vaccines, freedom, and the law rather than capitulating by avoiding things that aren’t supported by the movement’s extremist views. And while impacts on social cohesion and trust are important factors in public health decision-making, policy decisions shouldn’t be dictated by the threat of social division and unrest if a large chunk of that social division and unrest can be chalked up to opportunistic, anti-government extremism. This isn’t to say the convoy has nothing at all to do with mandates or that an erosion of public trust shouldn’t cause us to re-visit when and how mandates are used. But if we remove the extremism, the “social division and unrest” looks very different.
Ultimately, reasonable disagreement about vaccine mandates is possible. If vaccine mandates are used, promoting and maintaining public trust in public health authorities, government, and the healthcare system is crucial. There are many ethical considerations that might cause us to re-think mandates, but the mere existence of the convoy and the “social division and unrest” it supposedly represents shouldn’t be one of them.
Maxwell J. Smith is an Assistant Professor in the School of Health Studies, Department of Philosophy, Rotman Institute of Philosophy, and Schulich Interfaculty Program in Public Health at Western University. @maxwellsmith