Sarah Zhang’s article “A Vaccine Reality Check” discusses the ongoing efforts throughout the world to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Many hope that a vaccine will allow life to quickly return to as it was before. Zhang warns against this, pointing to the difficulties that will still occur even if a vaccine is successfully developed such as a limited number of available resources needed for mass production and the difficulties that will be faced in distributing a vaccine. However, even if all the difficulties of developing, producing, and distributing a vaccine could be overcome, there is still a glaring concern. Zhang states that “20 percent of Americans already say they will refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and with another 31 percent unsure, reaching herd immunity could be that much more difficult.” The question of how to resolve the issue touches on multiple ethical and moral questions.
The ethical question that seems most relevant to me is whether paternalism is justified in this context. There is a particular brand of liberalism rising within the United States that has been exemplified throughout quarantine. Many have insisted that requirements to wear a mask or adhere to social distancing guidelines are infringements to their autonomy and freedom. The same argument would most likely be raised if any mandates were imposed requiring vaccinations to return to the workplace, school, or university campus. Similar requirements are already in place for many other vaccines, particularly in school environments, and there has been much debate over the topic. However, such a mandate may be needed if the United States is going to reach levels of immunization necessary for herd immunity. A rebuttal I would raise to the argument against mandatory vaccination is a concept that is fairly common in medicine: paternalism is acceptable if restricting a person’s autonomy is necessary to protect others from harm. Refusing to get a vaccination not only puts yourself at continued risk for exposure to coronavirus but could also put others who are unable to receive the vaccine due to economic or health reasons at undue risk.
One question this debate leaves me with is why American society is much more sensitive to paternalism in this case than in the many other daily occurrences where paternalism occurs. The requirement that we all drive on a certain side of the road, laws prohibiting stealing, and many other aspects of daily life can all be seen as the government engaging in paternalism because they believe it is in the best interest of their citizens. People rarely argue that such requirements infringe on their autonomy. What can such resistance to paternalism surrounding vaccines be attributed to? Does it result from a rising culture of medical and scientific skepticism, a genuine concern for health, or something else?