Around the world, COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing again, thanks to the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant. Among the hardest hit, surprisingly, are the countries that famously had the fastest rates of vaccination in the early going.
Just a month ago Israel seemed to have beaten the virus, with an average of fewer than three new cases each day per million population; as of this week it had risen to 109. In the United States, likewise, the number of new cases has tripled in the last month, to 105 per million, while the United Kingdom, which was averaging just 22 new cases per million two months ago, is now closing in on 700.
Does that mean that vaccinations are useless against the disease? Of course not. It means that vaccinations are not enough – not, certainly, until herd immunity has been reached: the proportion of the population at which the virus starts to run out of fresh victims.
Until then it will continue to spread among the unvaccinated – and, since no vaccine is 100 per cent effective, among the vaccinated as well. Which means other measures, including masks and physical distancing, will still be needed. At higher infection rates, moreover – and the Delta variant’s is much higher than earlier incarnations of the virus – the threshold for herd immunity will be correspondingly higher.
Whether because they did not anticipate the Delta variant’s spread, or out of sheer impatience, the countries that were quickest to vaccinate were too quick to let down their guard, lifting lockdowns and relaxing mask mandates even as the virus was still loose. Canada, by contrast, had the “luck” of a comparatively slow vaccine rollout, and so has been more cautious about removing other protections.
That’s fine, but it can only be sustained for so long. We will have no permanent assurance of our safety until we have reached herd immunity. On this, we still have much work to do, even if our record is much improved of late. The proportion of the population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine shows signs of plateauing at around 70 per cent – among the highest in the world, but still probably 20 percentage points short of what is required.
Moreover, where before the issue was supply – finding enough doses to stick into willing arms – increasingly the problem appears to be demand: convincing those who have not been vaccinated to date to get with the program. The stakes could not be higher. And yet our political leaders seem strangely reluctant to take the kinds of steps that will be required.
I understand that purely coercive measures – making it illegal not to be vaccinated – are unlikely to succeed. And I can see the appeal of incentive-based approaches, such as some provinces are enacting: enrolling every vaccinated person in a lottery, for example. What I find hard to understand is why this should be to the exclusion of other approaches, in between the two.
I am speaking of regulations that would make participation in certain social settings – work, study, leisure, commerce, any that involve close contact with large numbers of people – conditional on vaccination. Whether they are called vaccine certificates, vaccine passports, vaccine mandates, they are a useful combination of carrot and stick.
I yield to no one in my crankish resistance to nanny-state intrusions on personal liberty, such as laws requiring helmets on cyclists or life preservers on boaters. But the point of a vaccine is not just to protect the recipient, but to protect everyone with whom he or she is likely to come into contact. That makes it an altogether different matter than the simplistic libertarianism of its critics would suggest.
The imposition is slight, and hardly unusual: proof of inoculation against particular diseases has long been a requirement of foreign travel, or for that matter (as David Frum has pointed out) to attend kindergarten. Exceptions can always be made for those with legitimate reasons, health or otherwise, to avoid vaccination; essential services, likewise, could be exempt.
The point, after all, is not that every single person should be vaccinated, but that enough should be. Its effectiveness on this point is already apparent: in the hours after French President Emmanuel Macron announced a similar vaccine mandate, more than 1.3 million Français and Françaises signed up for the jab, most of them in the key holdout group, the under-35s.
Of all the points at which to draw a libertarian line in the sand, then, this would seem the silliest. Vaccine mandates don’t stigmatize people for something they can’t control, or dictate to them in matters of personal choice. They merely encourage them to look out for each other, by means of a safe and simple act that tens of millions of their fellow citizens have already performed. In the middle of a deadly pandemic, that is surely the very least we can ask.
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