My first set of comments on this subject left off at the point of cautioning readers and concerned folks about being used for political agendas that run counter to their own interests. At the same time, I advocated for defending the rights of those who, demonstrably, have lived their lives opposed to taking vaccines either as a deeply held personal or religious belief. I also recognized that taking vaccines has been the norm rather than the exception globally for very many decades. Arguably that includes most people who now find themselves opposed to taking vaccines on the grounds of some life principle they have only recently come to adopt––truth be told.
Watching the Oct 26, 2021 fairly large march over the Brooklyn Bridge, it was clear that it was very much dominated by an anti-de Blasio and anti-Biden agenda (no fan of either). Flags and shouts of “USA! USA!” dominated, eerily reminiscent of southern protests by white nationalists, though without the confederate flag and with sprinklings of people of color. Skillful slogans accompanied it: “Last year we were heroes, now we are zeroes!” “Essential workers are essential; the shot is not!” “We’re not anti-vaccine, just anti-mandates!” “Coercion is no choice!” “Tyranny no more” and so on. Admittedly, significant numbers of well-intended people have also joined these ranks, especially in opposition to mandates.
The hard reality is that as of the end of October 2021, the number of confirmed COVID 19 cases in the U.S. stood at 45,934,095 and deaths at 745,535. New York alone had 2,557,930 confirmed cases and 57,913 deaths. These astounding numbers clearly represent a formidable crisis, unimaginable over the past several generations. This cries out for remedies that address that crisis and seek to abate it.
In the face of this crisis, supported by such compelling numbers, taking the position: “free will and free choice”––or each man for himself––simply cannot be proffered as public policy. Individual “solutions” are the very opposite of public policy or working for the common good. While anti-mandaters perceive themselves as being different from anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, unfortunately their mistaken logic is the same. It binds them together as they argue that personal choice should supersede consideration of the common good and public policy. But like it or not, living by the covenant that we operate under what best serves “the common good” is precisely what we all signed up for when we agreed to be part of society, or for that matter, what all species that gather together have always done as well.
There are limits to “free will and free choice” when your conduct affects others, otherwise anyone is free to drive on the wrong side of the road anytime they so choose, or, to infect others with any disease, whether it be COVID, or highly contagious, quick acting and deadly Meningitis, Ebola, Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis––all vaccine treatable on a preventative basis, not after the fact.
Then the question: How do we know this and how do we know that, in terms of the authenticity and integrity of the studies and testing? Such questions are plausible when they lead to the adoption of valid public policy. On the other hand, when that is neither the objective nor the outcome, it can be injected into any conversation to lead us into rabbit holes. When any point of contention cannot be definitively resolved, the solution cannot be opposition to the principles of science and intelligent discussion of sound public policy. We must empower some entity to help us decide on what is best for the common good. That’s the definition of society, of coming together. Otherwise for that matter, how do we know for certain that anything we are told is the truth and might not be later proven to be mistaken, even deliberately so? The truth is we do not and may never know with absolute certainty. Just as we cannot completely trust that the FDA and other responsible government agencies are not influenced by the food giant company, Monsanto, in its decision making or that any, all or most, of the genetically engineered meat and agro products which we consume, do not come with hidden health consequences, maybe even harsh cancerous ones at that. How do we really know what’s in a simple aspirin, cough medicine, lipstick, mascara, or the bottled water we all drink? And we can go on and on. Yet, we cannot make the mistake of giving what is unknown and uncertain credit over harsh reality, hard data and over the known and certain.
The truth is that much of our lives is at the will of experts, officials or politicians, many of whom are in the pockets of companies or wealthy individuals. Until this society is fundamentally redesigned so that we are more comfortable in the assurances and presumptions we allow governments––or get far better at policing them in the meantime––if we are to have a society, it comes with rules. Again, we have to agree on which side of the road we all drive.
The route we took to arrive at vaccine mandates played a critical role in where we are today and deserves comment. Initially, I took a “wait-and-see” position on taking the vaccine. To begin with, the handling of the pandemic by governmental bodies and administrative agencies at most levels have contributed greatly to the confusion, misinformation, and distrust. The Trump administration boldly led the way resulting in hundreds of thousands of lives lost unnecessarily.
But notice how most of the leaders who encourage anti regulation attitudes among the population––on mandates, masks, and vaccines––have mostly taken the vaccine to protect their own lives and those of their families! And they favor the most invasive regulation on women’s bodies and see no need for a voice or choice when it comes to communities with which they do not identify. It may be that they see value in chaos.
Donald Trump’s grotesque and murderous lead was emulated in Brazil and a few other places globally, with similar disastrous results. For NYC transit workers, many died even as the MTA either discouraged and even prohibited the wearing of masks. Caring more about optics and not appearing to be alarmist, the MTA’s deliberate actions arguably caused scores of transit workers to lose their lives. This behavior tracked, more or less, with the responses across most state and city agencies in New York. Then even when the number of dead bodies in NY had grown to be too much to ignore and PPEs were ordered, it was made available haphazardly and without any apparent concern for workers’ lives or their health. Supplies were inadequate or rationed even when available. Reckless measures such as throwing up shower curtain-like devices at the bus operator positions to protect from the aerosol spread of the virus, didn’t help with workers’ confidence either! Thus, it is easy to see why many people would be untrusting of government’s and management’s newfound care about workers health and safety.
This does not mean that such mandates aren’t necessary or warranted. It means that abuse and arrogance always reign if people are not organized and if there is no serious fight back. In that regard our trade unions, including the TWU for NYC transit workers, mostly failed us. Lives were at stake, yet they showed no backbone or vision and failed to lift a finger to intervene in concert with community allies. The vigor now being displayed on mandates, vaccines and masks would have served a better purpose then to bring about more aggressive abatement measures, combined with carefully calibrated accommodations and still could, with a change of focus and direction from “free will”, “free choice” and an anti-authoritarian posture that rings empty and hollow.
Roger Toussaint is the former president of the Transport Workers Union Local (TWU), Local 100.