Football fans will wonder how it is that I had no idea who Aaron Rodgers was before the controversy involving his vaccine status erupted in the media last week. (The quick response is that I do not follow professional sports at all unless they spill over into the main news headlines.) For the edification of others like me, Rodgers is a professional football player who is quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He chose not to get a COVID vaccine for reasons he detailed in this interview. He recently tested positive for COVID.
I am not interested here in commenting on the wisdom of his choice. Rather, I found a particular statement in the interview of special significance. Rodgers opined, "Health should not be political." The entirety of the interview tells me that he means specifically partisan politics. But it is easy to equate partisan politics with politics in general which by my definition is a very broad category of human endeavor that impinges on practically our every waking hour. By politics I mean the institutions and processes by which we collectively decide two things: 1) who gets what by when and 2) where personal autonomy stops and the needs of the community take precedence. That definition makes even private family life political.
Americans somehow believe they can take politics out of their daily lives, that they can set up a society in which we all just respectfully leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others. There are two problems with that thinking. First, as a colleague once explained, nobody likes to be bossed around; but there are plenty of people who want to boss others around. Second, it is a practical impossibility for us humans to "leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others." It turns out we need clear rules for how we relate to one another, either by custom or by law, in order to accomplish this. It's also equally clear that if those rules don't limit what the bossy among us can do, those bossy types will run roughshod over everyone else's autonomy.
That, in brief, is what every political dispute is about, namely, how I go about seeking what I want in society, how much of what I want I will be allowed to attain, and how much authority others will have over my actions and choices.
The coronavirus pandemic daily adds fuel to political disputes about health, both individual and public. The struggle over bodily and personal autonomy now hangs like a sword of Damocles above American society as deadlines loom for receiving vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus among members of the U.S. military, public employees, hospital workers, truck drivers and practically anyone working for companies with more than 100 employees.
(After I finished this piece, the news broke that the federal vaccine mandate for companies with more than 100 employees was temporarily halted by a federal appeals court pending a hearing on whether to grant a permanent injuction against the mandate program. If the court were to grant a permanent injunction, that decision would almost certainly be appealed immediately to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Federal and state vaccine mandates now threaten a significant exodus of workers in the trucking industry which is already suffering a crippling shortage of drivers. That shortage has manifested itself as empty store shelves and pileups of cargo containers at major ports. (There is confusion about whether the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the vaccine mandate for employers, will grant narrow exemptions or possibly very broad exemptions for truck drivers.)
Health care workers are also in short supply and that supply may get even smaller if many of those who refuse vaccination are fired, suspended or simply leave.
The U.S. military worries about its readiness as its own deadlines for service members to get vaccinated approaches. Some 500,000 service members remain unvaccinated at this late date.
Some 2,000 of New York City's 11,000 firefighters took medical leave recently to protest vaccine mandates.
This drama is being replayed across the nation in practically every industry and institution, both public and private.
Until now it has been received wisdom that mandating vaccines among the general population is likely to be counterproductive. There are other ways to encourage vaccination without picking a distracting and potentially ruinous fight with those opposed to vaccination—a fight that might give them the opportunity to recruit more adherents.
The severe blow that COVID gave to our global society and economy, however, convinced leaders that only near universal vaccination would halt COVID and its deleterious health and economic effects. It seems we will now find out whether the received wisdom mentioned above is correct or not: Will the disruptions caused by mandates be outweighed by the progress toward and advantages of nearly universal vaccination?
There are two factors weighing against a felicitous outcome for this strategy. First, no vaccine to date offers what is called "sterilizing immunity." That means those vaccinated can and do get infected with COVID and can also spread the disease to others. The upside is that their illness is very likely to be less severe and their chances of hospitalization and death are dramatically reduced.
So, it turns out that vaccination does not mean elimination of the COVID virus. In fact, the virus not only continues to circulate; it also mutates, creating new strains which may ultimately evade the protection of current vaccines. If a vaccine-resistant strain appears, responding would entail the development and distribution of new vaccines worldwide all over again. We may end up in a race that we cannot win. No one knows for certain.
Second, by definition vaccines developed and deployed within the last year and a half have not been tested for side-effects that might appear several years after administration. This is particularly important as it is now increasingly likely that frequent booster shots are going to be necessary merely to achieve the current limited protection. It normally takes about 10 years to develop and thoroughly test a vaccine before it is approved for use.
Perhaps there will be no long-term adverse effects for the overwhelming majority of those who take one of the vaccines, and that will be a welcome development. Those who created the vaccines, not surprisingly, say there is nothing to worry about. But we will only know for certain as the years pass whether this is the case. If it is not, then it's possible that a new public health crisis could emerge.
Under this dizzying array of considerations, political leaders no doubt wish the question of vaccination could be taken out of the political realm. They wish that they could know all the answers for certain today. But politics is about making important decisions under conditions of uncertainty. In fact, we don't need political policy decisions where certainty reigns.
It turns out we can't address health without politics. Where we draw the line between personal autonomy and societal need is the main question today. We are seeing attempts to redraw that line and we do not know what new stable state of affairs will yet result. The outcome of many future elections may be determined by where that line is drawn and how many voters accept it.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.