Western countries have put in place some of the strictest Covid-19 vaccine mandates in the world. Unvaccinated people cannot partake in any kind of indoor activities, or even work in the case of Italy. The implementation of harsh vaccination mandates has created such upheavals and polarisation that makes one wonder if the game is worth the candle. To revert this state of polarisation it is necessary to reflect on a few key facts that can help us face the pandemic effectively while protecting social unity and democracy.
Understanding the difference between Vaccine Efficacy and Effectiveness
We have known for a long time now that Covid-19 is here to stay. What we also know is that there is still a lot of uncertainty on the vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing the spreading of the virus, as well as the timeframe of effective protection. We have heard plenty about vaccine efficacy, which is how well a vaccine performs in ideal conditions, but very little on its effectiveness or its performance on the wider population. Effectiveness is only measured through observation of the vaccine’s effect on the real world and is something that we are only now starting to understand.
What we are seeing today is not very promising. If we take Ireland, a country where 91% of the adult population is currently vaccinated, covid infections haven’t really been going down as much as we would hope. What we can see from the graph below, the daily new cases in Ireland are even higher than this time last year.
Graph from Worldometers
When we look at deaths too we see that not much progress has been achieved. On October 20th last year, 13 daily deaths were recorded. On the same day this year, we saw 63 daily recorded deaths. A similar trend is observed in the US, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and other European countries with high vaccination rates and little to no restrictions in place. In countries like Portugal and Italy, where there is a high vaccination rate but wearing masks and social distancing are still practised, as well as other restrictions on social gatherings, the number of infections and deaths are considerably lower compared to last year.
Graph from Worldometers
The World Health Organisation had been clear about Covid-19 vaccines:
“More evidence is needed to determine exactly how well they stop infection and transmission. After being vaccinated, individuals should continue taking simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue. ” -WHO
The WHO recommends people to get vaccinated but at the same time, it also stresses the importance of keeping up with other measures too as we still do not know the extent vaccines will be able to prevent new infections and deaths.
What many governments have done, however, is to portray vaccines as highly efficacious in both preventing infections and deaths, promising people that vaccines would enable them to go back to business as usual. By loosening measures as an incentive to get vaccinated and framing vaccines as a fix-all, they have actually done more harm than good. What we see today with the loosening of measures is that more people are getting infected, and not just unvaccinated people. In Ireland, we see that 54% of the people hospitalised had been fully vaccinated.
This should make us reflect on the way forward and make us face the fact that there are no quick fixes to a pandemic. If we have learned anything since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak is that flash lockdown and quick solutions do not work. We need a long term plan and we need to curb expectations. We should not undermine the importance of vaccines but we should also be honest and clear on what they can actually deliver. Doing otherwise will make more people doubt institutions and further exacerbate the divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
The Cost of Coercion
When vaccination campaigns first started in December 2020, EU countries were planning on vaccinating 70% of the adult population. In most European countries this objective was achieved and actually surpassed this summer without the implementation of harsh measures. As of October 14, 17 out of 28 countries have achieved over 70% vaccination with another 10 countries being above 50% and only two countries being below 50%. So why introduce mandates when vaccination trends are going up?
If we look at the Scandinavian countries, where no restrictions were put into place, the vaccination rates are among the highest in the world, with Norway and Denmark breaking 86%. The correlation between voluntary vaccination and high vaccination rates is difficult to determine. After all, Scandinavian institutions enjoy high levels of trust, something that has definitely played a big role in facilitating vaccination. However, the idea that persuasion would be more effective than coercion is not a far fetched one, even in a context where institutional trust is low.
In a context where trust towards the institutions is low, coercion risks to further aggravate suspicions making people entrench into their positions. But even if coercion might lead to more people getting vaccinated, is the actual social and political cost worth it? What is the effect that coercion will have on our democracy? These are questions that we should ask ourselves when discussing vaccine mandates since the fear that authoritarian regimes will exploit the situation of exception to strip people from their rights is real and should not be underestimated.
According to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, Hungary has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions. Amnesty International had also published a report pointing out that Poland had used Covid-19 measures as a pretext to crackdown on peaceful protests. Many other countries have been criticised by HRW and other NGOs for taking advantage of the state of exception. It is no surprise then that many people do not feel comfortable with the implementation of policies that allow governments to interfere with their bodily integrity. These policies set a precedent that can make citizens liable to further intrusions into their private life, opening the doors to more illiberal policies.
We Need More Nuanced Narratives To Overcome Polarisation
After interviewing people for the past year and a half on their experiences of Covid-19 as a researcher on SolPan a comparative and longitudinal study, I had the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the reasoning that leads people to accept or refuse vaccination.
What I have observed is that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people’s opinions lack nuance and perspective. Vaccinated people often fall prey to the oversimplification of the Covid-19 pandemic, seeing vaccines as a fix-all to the crisis. Unvaccinated people, on the other hand, are often unable to get past their suspicions, which are getting further aggravated by the implementation of more coercive measures.
Another important finding is that the arguments that emerge from in-depth interviews do not resonate with the image that the media portray of those that refuse the Covid-19 vaccines. What we hear from media outlets is that those that refuse Covid-19 vaccines are conspiracy theorists and science deniers while the truth, as always, is much more complicated than that. Surely, there are people that deny science, and that fall into the category of conspiracy theorists, however, they do not encompass the whole category of people that refuse vaccination.
Media are aggravating polarisation with their shaming of unvaccinated people, something that achieves nothing but more entrenchment and hatred. What we need right now is a society that is able to remain united and open to a conversation on the way forward. We need a cross-fertilisation of ideas and persuasion that can only happen in a climate where people keep listening to each other and discussing. If we are not able or willing to do that, we are setting ourselves up for defeat.