September 10, 2021


Dissent horizon

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

Image © Leigh Henningham / Alamy

Why do we object more to mandated vaccination than mandated lockdowns?

In about a fortnight, Melbourne will acquire an extraordinary distinction: no other city in the world will have spent more time in lockdown. And hard lockdown, at that. We haven’t mucked about. Curfews, closed schools, limited childcare. We’ve taped off playgrounds, sent swarms of cops into public housing estates, and live within a small, invisible radius that proscribes our few lawful movements. As I write, we’re about day 215. Roughly – I can’t be bothered bathing properly, much less looking up the exact number. But we’re coming for you, Buenos Aires.

If you live someplace else, and have been tempted to believe the cosy Instagram posts of your mates who live here, the ones that pretend to some charming resilience – three kids climbing precariously on daddy’s back, everyone with spaghetti in their hair, the it’s-tough-but-we’re-so-blessed performative horseshit – I can assure you these tableaus are as desperately choreographed as you suspect.

It’s a fucking nightmare. And for those who’ve spent a few days in lockdown – sufficiently small periods so that it could seem novel, even exciting – your experience isn’t insight into ours, which is an exponentially increasing sense that your skull has been fixed in an ever-tightening clamp.

The sensation of the skull-clamp is not helped by a question that has come to haunt me. Consider: We’ve mandated the shuttering of society and 200+ days of home imprisonment for millions, but we haven’t mandated vaccines for hospital workers. This painfully confounds me, doubly so because it’s as if this is the first time we’ve had to think about it. But there’s precedent. Only last year, the Victorian government mandated flu jabs for frontline healthcare workers. In 2016, it introduced the “no jab, no play” law for kids in childcare and kindy.

Now contrast these two recent headlines: “Hundreds of cops to ensure Melburnians don’t travel to regions” and “More than 500 Melbourne hospital workers furloughed in recent days after exposure, health system under strain”.

In desperation, I call Professor Peter Doherty, the Nobel prize-winning immunologist, to ask when Dan Murphy’s is opening. I jest. I beg him to reconcile this conundrum for me.

“It’s an active debate,” he says. “In Melbourne, I know the people who are in contact with COVID patients must be vaccinated. That’s a requirement. That also goes back to influenza. When we have an influenza pandemic, everyone who’s in an ICU and so forth has to be vaccinated. It kind of always amazes me that any healthcare workers reject vaccination, but they do. It’s part of that general weirdness out there. I mean, there’s the absolutely evil bastardry about spike proteins in the vaccine making people infertile. Young women and pregnant women and young men, some of them haven’t got vaccinated because they believe this absolutely evil [myth].

“Some worry that mandating actually doesn’t work. But I think it’s going to be an increasingly common part of the landscape. And Peter Singer, for instance, has come out and said he believes that a vaccine mandate for everybody is quite ethical.”

But this doesn’t satisfy me, and I fear that I wasn’t sufficiently clear. (To be fair, this isn’t the professor’s area of expertise.) I continue: “Our extensive lockdowns – and I’m not suggesting that they’ve been unnecessary, or gratuitous – but our lockdowns are a profound exercise of state authority, a grave imposition and historic denial of freedom previously unknown to Victorians. How is that we can insistently mandate lockdowns, but not the vaccination of hospital workers – what am I missing? Why is one easier than the other?”

“I absolutely see your point,” the professor says. “There’s something in [some] people’s minds that makes them incredibly fearful of being injected with a vaccine, or having their children injected with a vaccine. And this has really been [due to] 20 years of propaganda from anti-vaccination people that has changed a lot of the dialogue, you know, ‘It’s about your freedom’, this sort of crap. And what I’m sort of tempted to say on Twitter is that basically there’s only one question here: do the vaccines protect you or not? The rest is all noise.”

I decide to ring around. Maybe the answer would be found in the fever-swamps of political strategy. I call a friend, a ministerial adviser, and demand an explanation. He doesn’t have one. “What do the AMA say?” he asks.

“They want mandated jabs for the whole healthcare system – across the country – for everyone from doctors to IT folks to cleaners,” I say.  

My partner, herself a hospital worker, suggests the answer is probably legal. Good point, I say, and call the mayor of Dubbo, Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence is also a barrister, appears frequently in the High Court, and is co-host of The Wigs legal podcast. Which I recommend. As with Professor Doherty, I beseech Lawrence to explain this to me.

He doesn’t think it’s principally a question of law. “I think one is easier than the other, because the latter goes to bodily integrity and autonomy,” Lawrence says. “Putting something in you without your consent. There’s a history of forced procedures, forced sterilisations, which are anathema now, and forced vaccinations might be put in that category.”

To be clear, the good mayor is not suggesting that mandated vaccinations are the same thing as forced sterilisation – he’s suggesting that some have conflated one with the history of the other. That said, he believes you need a compelling reason to force people to be vaccinated.  

“In ethics and philosophy, the directness of the cause of harm is something that can influence the moral quality of it – or the perception of that quality. So there might be something in the directness of the needle. We know that one in a million will die, whereas any deaths associated with lockdown, like a suicide, will probably have a more diffuse, or indirect, causation.

“But it makes no sense on one level, because one is objectively more onerous than the other – stay in lockdown for two years or have an injection.”

Well, yes. And thank you, Mr Lawrence. But this doesn’t quite get to the fact of Victoria’s precedent with mandating flu shots – or the fact that other states, like New South Wales, have mandated this for “frontline” workers – though Lawrence does float this interesting speculation: that voluntary lockdown wouldn’t work, but that voluntary vaccination probably will – eventually.

This week, the NSW Supreme Court began preliminary directions hearings for three civil cases made against the state’s health minister and his vaccine mandate – one case was brought by a police officer. Fifty thousand people watched the court’s live stream online.

And perhaps there lies the rub. Is our likelihood for civic revolt greater in regard to vaccines than lockdown? Can that be true? The skull-clamp tightens…

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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