A good take on an extremely difficult question
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001
Cross-posted from Jonathan Cook’s website
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There is an entirely predictable but ugly political atmosphere developing in the two states where vaccination is most advanced: Israel and the UK. I currently live in one, Israel, and was born and spent the majority of my life in the other.
As each country moves closer to vaccinating a majority of its population, national conversations are quickly turning to concern about what needs to be done about those who have not yet been vaccinated, or refuse to be vaccinated.
Israel has already rushed through a so-called “Green Passport” – its version of the “immunity passport”. In part, it is a cynical move by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to improve his prospects in this month’s general election by finding a pretext to quickly reopen the economy and give the Israeli public a sense that things are “returning to normal”.
Israel is preparing to make vaccination a pre-requisite for engaging in activities like going to the cinema, having a meal out, exercising in the gym, or staying at a hotel. The debate is also rapidly expanding to whether some jobs should be made dependent on having a jab.
None of this is surprising. Israel is a largely conformist society, where a tribal sense of solidarity can invariably be relied on against supposed enemies – whether they be the traditional, generic one of “Arabs” or a more recent interloper like a threatening virus.
It is in those parts of Israeli society where trust in state authorities is lowest that the vaccination campaign is struggling to make inroads: among Israel’s large minority of Palestinian citizens (Palestinians under occupation, by contrast, have no say in the matter as they are being denied vaccination by Israel), and Israel’s religious ultra-Orthodox community who look to God for direction, not secular officials.
Perhaps a little more surprisingly, the UK government is considering following Israel’s lead, despite the Conservative party’s long-professed commitment to an “Englishman’s freedoms” and its traditional resistance to an interfering “nanny state”. (That resistance, of course, applies only when demands on the state relate to helping the poor and marginalised rather than big business.)
Boris Johnson, ever the populist, wants to keep a British public onside that is keen to get back to the pub, while the Tory party more generally needs the economy recovering and its corporate donors placated if its claims to being the party of private enterprise and economic growth continue to sound plausible.
The ethics of immunity passports is also being hotly debated – if only in slightly more serious terms – in the pages of my old newspaper, the liberal Guardian.
Nick Cohen, a columnist whom in normal circumstances I would scrupulously avoid citing, writes of imminent “vaccine apartheid” and notes – in vaguely approving terms – that “It is only a matter of time before we turn on the unvaccinated”. What will be needed, he argues, is yet more crackdowns on free speech, on “fake news”, to bolster the public’s trust in government and increase vaccine take-up.
Cohen’s only reticence is that black and Asian populations, because they are least likely to trust the British state and get vaccinated, will be the main victims of any popular backlash against the unvaccinated. That, he fears, will test the consciences of identity-focused liberals like himself.
Another Guardian opinion writer presumptuously cites the philosopher John Stuart Mill in arguing that stripping the unvaccinated of basic rights – vaccine apartheid again – can be made more palatable if it is presented positively as “incentivisation” rather than negatively as punishment. Helpfully, we are told: “The aim might be the same, but the moral reasoning behind it is crucially different.” What a relief!
Again, only the danger that black and Asian communities may end up as the collateral damage of these coercive or exclusionary measures pricks the writer’s conscience.
A future of Sneetches
All this circumspection is being fleshed out below the line by Guardian readers, who are offering their own potted versions of “common sense”. Popular arguments include sacking the unvaccinated from their jobs to protect others and denying them medical treatment in an over-stretched NHS (apparently even if they have spent a lifetime paying their taxes).
The future, at least the one envisioned by these liberals, echoes Dr Seuss’ story of the disdain faced by the Plain-Belly Sneetches at the hands of the snooty Star-Belly Sneetches:
When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts
Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches.
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.
The pandemic drama
Let us pause for a brief intermission. This is not a post for or against vaccination. I will leave that to others, not least because the polarised nature of that discussion entirely distracts and detracts from what I think are deeper matters relating to trust in the Covid vaccines that reflect wider problems of trust in our state institutions and the values they uphold.
I want, as I have done before, to use this space to switch our attention, even if briefly, from the debate everyone is having to a debate almost no one is having.
In fact, I want to deconstruct the debate entirely and reframe it. If you are heavily invested in the arguments of the pro- and anti-vaccination camps – or the more often overlooked concerns of the vaccine hesitant – this article may not be what you were hoping for.
Instead, this is a call to draw ourselves back from the drama of the pandemic to consider the bigger picture of a virus that – if we would listen – offers us a warning of where we might be going wrong.
A faux debate
The problem with the debate about whether we should be able to bully people into getting a Covid vaccine is that it isn’t really a debate at all. It’s a faux debate, because a real debate needs two sides. What we are getting, as so often with these corporate media-framed moral “dilemmas”, is one side of the debate masquerading as both sides.
The ethics of immunity passports, or vaccine apartheid, depends on a wider debate about what our societies mean – and what they obscure – when they discuss issues of trust, the public good and social solidarity. A real discussion of these matters, not the phoney one presented by politicians and Guardian writers, should be at the heart of how we address concerns about privacy, personal choice, social pressure and mob tyranny.
When columnists, politicians and liberal newspaper readers argue that we should all abide by the communal good in taking the vaccine, they are suddenly imposing an ethical yardstick they rarely use in weighing other issues. The sudden concern for the entire public’s welfare sounds hollow and self-serving when it is uttered by those who normally express only the most perfunctory interest in the common good and social solidarity.
Past the clown mask
The reality is that we live in societies that for at least four decades have been run exclusively in the interests of a tiny corporate elite. This corporate class – which own and run all our major media outlets and provide a revolving door for our captured politicians – are not just concerned with making money. Corporations are commercial enterprises driven by a psychopathic obsession with maximising profits and externalising costs – that is, passing off the toxic legacy of their business models on to those out of sight: the domestic poor, the foreign poor, and future generations.
There are people in our societies, many it seems, who fail to understand this. After a childhood spent watching adverts for Ronald McDonald, they struggle to see past the clown mask, to the disappeared forests that were once the lungs of the planet and are now vast processing plants that force-feed hundreds of millions of imprisoned cattle corn waste rather than grass, and that must then medicate these poor beasts to keep them alive on their unnatural diet. That is what really goes into the production of a high-street cheeseburger.
The visible billionaires, people like Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos and the Koch Brothers, are no better than the faceless corporations they compete with. They have accumulated vast wealth not because they are extraordinary business visionaries but because they are talented narcissists and psychopaths whose extreme greed and ruthless pursuit of self-interest got them to the top. And because they are at the very pinnacle of our social hierarchies, they get both to rationalise the political and economic ideologies that sustain those hierarchies and to shape the social values the rest of us must live by.
Lack of trust
For decades our societies have worshipped a single value with two faces: money and power. But we are suddenly being told by the very people who atomised our communities, who created an economic system of dog eat dog, who wrecked the planet with their greed – the people who made a religion of neoliberal orthodoxy – that we must trust that they have our best interests at heart during the pandemic.
They cared not one whit for the common good until now. But suddenly, after many months of economic contraction, when corporations finally have a chance to make a quick buck again – either by producing and selling vaccines to desperate governments and their populations or by demanding a hurried return to business as usual through enforced vaccination programmes – the corporations and their dutiful servants in the media and political class are shocked that some of the public, those most betrayed, are indicating a lack of “trust”.
Nick Cohen offers an interesting survey result:
In Birmingham – the only city to have produced detailed statistics – just 60% of people over 80 accepted the jab in Alum Rock, a deprived and racially mixed part of the inner city, while 95% accepted it in Sutton Four Oaks, an overwhelmingly white commuter suburb.
Why would that be? Why would affluent white people whom the system has always favoured be quicker to trust a system that cared for them than the poor and ethnic minorities who have always been treated with contempt by that system?
To ask the question is to answer it. Affluent liberals like Cohen understand that too. Which is why they hope to revive social controls that tightly police or censor information not to their liking, leaving them once again with exclusive rights to tell the poor and marginalised what constitutes the truth, to define for them what is in their interests.
Guardians of health?
An alien studying western societies from the heavens for the past half-century could better explain the problem than Cohen. People are being asked to trust the corporate medicine industry, the corporate media and the politicians dependent on the good will of profit-obsessed corporations to decide what is best for us, to believe that this time the corporate elite won’t take short cuts, that they won’t conceal information, that they won’t cause harm, that they won’t externalise the costs on to us, the public. That this time it will be different.
These are exactly the same corporations and their functionaries who in the past destroyed manufacturing industries that were the lifeblood of now-decimated communities; that approved the intensified militarisation of institutionally racist and corrupt police forces, turning them into domestic armies; and that are engaged in ransacking and destroying the planet on which we all depend.
Many people see the carnage we as a species have inflicted on the planet we inhabit, and doubt whether these same psychopaths can be trusted to take any better care of what goes on inside our bodies than they did the world outside us. Those two worlds – the interior and exterior – are intimately connected, after all. Can those who failed in their job as guardians of the planet really be trusted to serve as guardians of our health?
Jungles for the ‘fittest’
Conversely, those people who wanted less selfish societies – places where social solidarity and the communal good would really protect the weakest and the most vulnerable – have been ignored, belittled and smeared (yes, we haven’t forgotten what the Guardian and other liberals did to Corbyn and his supporters).
Those whowanted our societies to behave like societies, rather than serve as jungles where only the “fittest” could prosper, were not even a minority. They were the majority. But they had and still have no power to influence.
They are not the billionaires who own the newspapers that dictate the social, political and economic benchmarks for good and bad. They are not the billionaires with foundations and think-tanks capable of burrowing into the heart of government, secretly skewing and corrupting the political agenda. They are not the billionaires who threaten to bring the whole system crashing down unless they are bailed out with public money every time their own greed wrecks the economy.
After decades of this psychopathic selfishness coursing through the veins of our societies, suddenly a liberal elite wants to talk about social responsibility. They want us to trust those very same corporate interests that destroyed everything we hold dear. To doubt, to hesitate, to be fearful based on long experience is evidence only that one is a crank, a conspiracy theorist, anti-science, a Trumpian populist.
Same old patterns
When Covid-19 arrived a year ago, I wrote a popular post on the lessons we could learn from the virus. Sadly, we appear to have learnt nothing. In fact, we carry on in the same, familiar patterns of competition, cupidity and contempt for the natural world. The vaccine “cure” won’t save us from the real illness killing us.
In fact, as rich countries screw over poor countries to get their hands on better vaccines faster; as states exploit the virus to intensify the domestic surveillance programmes that were being rolled out long before Covid; as “fake news” about the virus and vaccines becomes the pretext to close the curtain on the window through which we briefly glimpsed a little of the real world we inhabit, not the mythical one that props up the rule of the plutocrats, we are going back to the worst kind of normal. The “normal” of ignorance, division, colonialism.
Bullying people to take the Covid vaccine – whether through incentives or punishments – is not social solidarity or social responsibility. It is a smug liberal conceit masquerading as those things.
If we really want a social consensus, if we really want the common good, if we really want everyone to trust in the collective, then we must remake our societies. We must decide to spurn the narrow, selfish, unaccountable elite that rules over us. We must decide, once and for all, to value the collective, the commons, the public good – not worship at the altar of profit and greed.