The Asian Voice

Plight of the anti-vaxxer: Statesman contributor

The writer says a Covid-19 vaccine certificate is akin to a passport in today's world, and an open sesame mantra to access a range of social and state facilities .

A person receives a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Jan 26, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - One of my friends is unwilling to take the Covid-19 vaccine jab and he has not taken it yet. He, however, reads tens of vaccine-related articles in journals such as Lancet, BMJ and Nature.

Of course, I don't intend to judge his arguments in this article. The world is certainly becoming a narrow place for the anti-vaxxers. For example, my friend has now faced increasing difficulties in his travel, even domestic travel. On a trip to north Bengal last Christmas, he could not get any reasonable hotel to stay without a vaccination certificate, and he had to rely on homestay. Well, the world is never an easy place for antivaxxers!

A Covid vaccine certificate is like a passport in today's world, and an open sesame mantra to access a wide range of basic social and state facilities in different countries across the globe. And that is not a new phenomenon.

During a series of smallpox outbreaks across the United States from 1898 through 1903, for example, a Chicago physician wrote: "Vaccination should be the seal on the passport of entrance to the public schools, to the voters' booth, to the box of the juryman, and to every position of duty, privilege, profit or honour in the gift of either the State or the Nation."

Historically vaccines were made mandatory for different sections of the people, if not all, in different parts of the world at different points of time. As early as 1777, during the American Revolutionary War, General George Washington made the controversial decision to order the mass inoculation of his soldiers against smallpox!

Smallpox was a major deterrent to enlistments at that time and it posed the risk of debilitating his army. However, such inoculations were far more primitive and dangerous than today's shots.

As we know, Edward Jenner developed a smallpox vaccine in 1796. Historical evidence would show that Elisa Bonaparte, the ruler of Lucca and Piombino in present-day Italy and sister to Napoleon, mandated the smallpox vaccines for newborns and babies in 1806. Later, the Compulsory Vaccination Act made it mandatory for infants in England and Wales in 1853.

A confirmation of plague vaccine or smallpox vaccine was a prerequisite for pilgrims entering places such as Pandharpur in British India or Mecca for the Hajj. Even today, as per the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), certain high-risk countries require travellers to provide vaccination certificates of yellow fever. Historically how did America ensure vaccinations of the travellers to their land? Well, a TIME magazine article of April 2021 described the 1985 phenomenon of smallpox.

An example of an America-bound train from Canada was cited in the article. While the train was still in Canada, a doctor boarded it and checked for a 'fresh scar' indicating a recent inoculation in the arm of every passenger. If no scar was found, the doctor offered the passenger to get vaccinated on the spot, otherwise, the passenger had to detrain before entering America. No other option.

There were anti-vaxxers and there was resistance from people unwilling to be inoculated. Incidentally, the anti-vaxxer sentiment is still quite strong in different places of the globe. For example, in an opinion piece in The Hill, Kentucky's Republican Senator Rand Paul wrote that any required proof of Covid-19 vaccination would be "full-on vaccine fascism".

Historically, however, more and more people started to believe that vaccines may be a way for the smooth running of the economy and social lives! As historian Michael Willrich pointed out in his book 'Pox: An American History', Americans began to conceive of liberty not only as freedom from government regulation but also as the freedom to meaningfully and actively participate in public life. What about India?

The Centre recently told the Supreme Court that no person can be forced to be vaccinated against their wishes. However, there is no denying that, for all practical purposes, life will be difficult for someone who is unvaccinated.

For example, when Mumbai opened its local train network to all on Aug 15, travellers needed to get e-passes after getting their vaccine certificates verified. Tiruchi Corporation has recently issued guidelines to commercial establishments to permit entry only to those vaccinated against Covid-19.

A Bengaluru school recently sent out a message to parents stating that students need to get vaccinated before the board exam. And, of course, my friend didn't find a hotel on his recent trip. There are numerous other examples, for sure. And this is almost the same everywhere. While Austria has made vaccination mandatory from this February, the French president's Covid strategy is to 'piss off ' the unvaccinated.

Take some other examples. Greece will start fining 100 euros (S$150) per month for people above 60 if they don't receive the jab by Jan 15. German MPs are expected to vote on making vaccination mandatory and Italy plans to make vaccines mandatory for the over-50s.

Vaccines will be mandatory for health and social care workers by April 1 in England. Micronesia, the tiny island nation in the western Pacific Ocean with 115,000 people, mandated inoculation for everyone over the age of 18 in late July, requiring anyone receiving federal funds to prove their vaccination status to receive their cheques.

Canada also made it compulsory in all federally regulated workplaces from early 2022. And other countries are making their own regulations, which, essentially, are making the world a tougher place for the anti-vaxxers.

Overall, do we really need a push or a nudge for vaccination? It seems that there is no unanimous action regarding this. In December, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that EU nations should open a debate around making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory because too many people still refuse to get shots voluntarily.

The WHO, however, thinks that "mandates around vaccination are an absolute last resort and only applicable when all other feasible options to improve vaccination uptake have been exhausted." For many people, vaccination is a compulsion, for sure. There is no denying that a feel-good factor is added to my satisfaction level whenever I visit a restaurant and find a board indicating that all the staff members are vaccinated.

Not quite sure though how much that would help protect me from Delta or Omicron. However, those workers had to take jabs to protect their jobs, irrespective of their choices. And I can see that my travel-loving friend would have to take shots soon, to avoid being detrained from his journey.

Let us not forget that even the World No. 1 tennis player, with the strong support of his country's president, cannot be assured of smooth sailing in this world without being vaccinated.

  • The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.

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