20 December, 2021
Lately a few people have asked me what I think of the ‘vaccine mandate.’
The short answer is: I’m pretty concerned about it.
But I’m also very worried that some groups and political parties are exploiting concerns about the mandates for their own political gain.
So this is a two-part, long-form piece collating a lot of ideas that others have been sharing over the past 18 months, in an attempt to make sense of all this (please read the second part of the article too - don't just take this part in isolation).
Let’s start with the stuff that most of us can hopefully agree on, and which is obvious to anyone who hasn’t been completely suckered in by fear-mongering and propaganda...
1. Lots of big companies (including, but certainly not limited to, big pharmaceutical companies) and mega-rich individuals are making a lot of money out of the covid pandemic and the way governments have responded to it.
The negative impacts of successive lockdowns and other ‘public health’ measures have fallen most heavily on lower-income people, precariously-employed migrant workers, and small businesses. In broad terms, the covid crisis has led to the rich getting richer while the poor get screwed.
Right through the 2020 lockdowns and border closures, well-connected businessmen like Andrew Forrest were receiving multiple travel exemptions to jet across the globe while people of colour in western Sydney were being hassled by the cops every time they walked out the front door.
This pattern isn’t unique to covid. The way our political and economic systems are set up, almost any kind of crisis – from a flood to a virus to a terrorist attack – can be used by big business lobbyists as an excuse to manipulate governments into enacting measures that suit the corporate sector’s financial interests.
Any conversation about what kinds of government responses are appropriate needs to keep these injustices and double standards front of mind. There’s a lot that governments could have done differently to reduce financial stress and related suffering during lockdowns, and the political establishment’s decision to prioritise corporate profits ahead of broader public welfare seems to have been a major contributing factor to widespread distrust and dissatisfaction with public health responses across Australia.
2. Hardcore right-wing politicians are exploiting people’s fears to win votes. There’s a reason that rich, powerful people like Clive Palmer have spent a lot of money spreading misinformation about covid... They’re not doing it because they’re genuinely concerned about anyone else’s human rights – they’re doing it to win votes and gain more power.
But there’s also a deeper reason why it suits them to amplify concerns about ‘freedom’ and accuse other parties (including the Greens) of being ‘anti-freedom’… When most of us use the term ‘freedom,’ we’re talking about freedom from top-down control and the freedom to live the way we want – freedom from violent government repression, freedom from bosses who exploit our work, and the freedom to spend time with loved ones and pursue our own interests/passions without the burden of mortgage payments, rising rents and high living costs etc.
But some of the people organising, funding, amplifying and supporting recent ‘freedom’ protests attach a very different meaning to the word ‘freedom.’ What they want is the freedom to make bigger profits - the freedom to exploit and destroy the environment, freedom to rip off workers and contractors, and the freedom to brainwash us all with commercial advertising to encourage us to consume stuff we don’t actually need.
Freedom is a slippery word, and we have to be very sceptical of those who would deploy ‘pro-freedom’ rhetoric in order to advance their own political or financial interests. It might sound like the same thing, but the ultimate objective and vision for society is very different.
3. Public health directives, and practical decisions about how they’re enforced, are inevitably influenced by political values and calculations. That doesn’t make it correct to claim that ALL public health responses (e.g. “you must wear a mask to the shopping centre for a few weeks”) are ‘going too far’ or constitute unjustified impositions on basic human rights. But it does mean so-called ‘neutral’ and ‘scientific’ health advice is always going to be filtered through a lens of political expediency and what kinds of measures the government thinks people will tolerate.
These can include highly politicised questions about what activities and services are ‘essential’ vs ‘non-essential,’ and trade-offs where governments introduce really harsh restrictions across many parts of society to ensure that certain industries and services can keep operating with minimal impact (e.g. just look at how light the operating restrictions on major casinos have been compared to the extremely tight, one-size-fits-all capacity limits on smaller live music venues).
Of course public health directives are influenced by politics and society’s existing power relations! And of course many of the people critiquing those public health directives also have political motives!
Mural photo by Megan Keene. Original mural by Gus Eagleton.
Stop acting like the government has never tried to control anything before
If you’re still with me at this point, it’s time for a slight detour to talk about histories of government control. See, government decisions shape and control almost every aspect of our lives, and have done so for decades (and in some parts of the world, centuries).
Governments are ALWAYS forcing people to live and act in certain ways. Personally I don’t think that’s a good thing.
But why is it that the specific forms of government control associated with the covid vaccines have been especially controversial?
A lot of people have been speaking out against various forms of government repression and control for years. Many government-imposed restrictions on people’s freedom have been a fundamental and intrinsic feature of the colonial nation-state since the very beginning of the European invasion, and go a heck of a lot further than extra requirements to enter a bar or festival.
Australia has a long history of locking up First Nations people who refused to submit to the violence and injustice of colonisation, as well as locking up refugees who come here seeking a better life. So it does make me wonder why most of the people who are now protesting for ‘freedom’ never once showed up to a rally calling for freedom for refugees, or to a protest about Aboriginal deaths in custody.
None of this is ‘new.’
We can certainly debate the extent to which certain public health measures are reasonable and justified, and those are important discussions to have. But I have very little patience for people who argue that nothing like the vaccine mandates has ever happened before in Australia.
Migrants already get turned away from entering Australia if they haven’t had certain vaccines – this has been happening for decades. And businesses already have the power to turn away employees who don’t comply with various health and safety measures.
Heck, many kinds of businesses even turn away customers for stupid, arbitrary shit like not meeting the dress code. I don’t think that’s right or reasonable or fair. But I’m getting pretty sick of people saying “This is unprecedented!” when in fact, such restrictions are really commonplace in our society.
I think one of the tipping points for me was when a whole bunch of comparatively privileged people started complaining that their travel and ability to cross borders would be limited on the basis of their ‘status’ and a piece of paper.
I mean, that is literally what passports and national border controls have always been designed to do. If you think it’s ‘unjustified discrimination’ to prevent people from entering a country or crossing a border on grounds that you consider ‘arbitrary,’ are you also opposed to restricting people’s movement based on their nationality and age (which Australia does routinely)? It seems to me that philosophically speaking, it’s difficult for anti-mandate protesters to sustain the argument that border controls based on vaccination status are ‘wrong’ but border controls based on other characteristics - like where someone was born or how much money they have - are ‘right.’
I guess this means a lot more people are joining the struggle against racist nationalism and border imperialism(?)… If that’s you, welcome aboard!
Practical negative consequences of the ‘mandate’
Before launching into this section, I feel compelled to highlight that a failure to collectively implement any kind of health measures to reduce the risk of covid spread within a facility or business effectively amounts to excluding a lot of people with chronic health issues and compromised immune systems from those spaces.
It’s not enough for people to say “mandates = bad!” We also need to be thinking through alternative systems and processes so that people who are at particularly high risk of severe harm from covid aren’t stuck at home. I think such precautions should be community-led rather than government-led, but I want to be clear that arguing against the current policy package people are calling ‘vaccine mandates’ doesn’t mean I’m arguing for a free-for-all where no-one takes any precautions.
Here are the things that worry me most about some of the recently announced public health measures:
1. If businesses are expected to enforce some of these rules – like checking whether someone has proof that they’ve been vaccinated – this will put workers who interact with the public into situations of heightened conflict, antagonism and risk exposure (often these workers are poorly paid and also don’t have much power within their organisation).
a) The government is expecting small businesses and non-profit organisations to do its dirty work for it and police customers’ vaccination status. OR
b) The government knows and accepts that a lot of organisations and businesses won’t actually be carefully checking vaccination status in practice (which is exactly what already happens with QR code check-ins), creating a false sense of security where we all pretend certain public health measures are followed widely, when in fact they’re routinely ignored.
A lot of people are now acting like because they are vaccinated, other health precautions are unnecessary or unjustified. But Omicron covid is now spreading in the community, and there are strong indications that while vaccines can significantly reduce the severity of an omicron infection, they are less effective at preventing its spread.
Top-down mandatory public health measures can reinforce the sentiment that unless the government is ‘making’ you do something, you don’t need to worry about it too much. As the Omicron variant spreads and the case for further lockdowns and other public health measures becomes stronger, the very existence of the vaccine mandate could indirectly serve to delegitimise education-focussed public health measures that don’t involve direct control.
2. Proving you’ve been vaccinated, or that you have a legitimate medical exemption for not being vaccinated, is proving to be a major hassle for lots of marginalised people. Linking the relevant accounts online is easy for many, but almost impossible for some of us (try verifying and linking your Medicare account when the system isn’t set up to accept ‘No Fixed Address’ as a legitimate answer). My office is also already hearing stories from people who legitimately ought to be exempt from the vaccine due to various existing health conditions, who are having trouble securing state-sanctioned exemptions.
Many security guards and other gatekeepers are going to look sceptically at people with genuine vaccine exemptions, or proof of unfamiliar overseas vaccines, or paper vaccination certificates, particularly if an individual presents as deviant from the status quo in other ways (e.g. their clothes look old and cheap, or they’re Aboriginal).
There’s a genuine risk that “We thought their vax certificate didn’t look legit” will be used as a proxy excuse to exclude and discriminate against people based on race or class. Any process or set of rules that gives people another excuse to exert power over others has the potential for misuse.
Maybe getting into a nightclub isn’t the biggest issue in the world, but a lot of marginalised people do use the State Library at South Bank for internet access, and it would suck if some of them had a harder time accessing this space because of these new rules.
My related concern is that there’s already so much pressure in our society to own a smartphone and take it with you everywhere. Smartphones are environmentally destructive, highly addictive tracking devices that collate data about us so private companies can more effectively market products and manipulate us. They’re obviously quite useful devices too. But the increasing societal pressure to always have a phone with you – and to regularly buy newer phones that can accommodate the latest check-in apps etc – needs to be critiqued and questioned.
Personally, whenever I visit larger businesses, I’ll be asking them to comply with their obligation to provide an alternative check-in option (which they are supposed to offer to anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone) and showing my paper certificate of vaccination.
3. Every process and policy that increases contact between oppressed people and the ‘enforcement’ arms of the state is likely to lead to further marginalisation, criminalisation and targeting of those people. As touched on above, we’ve seen overt classism and racism in the enforcement of covid-19 public health measures since the early days of the pandemic, with lockdown enforcement disproportionately targeting people of colour and poorer communities, even at times when the virus was spreading fastest in wealthier neighbourhoods.
The Queensland government almost certainly won’t be proactively checking whether every single restaurant in Queensland is complying with the obligation to turn away unvaccinated people, but past form suggests they are most likely to conduct spot checks targeting migrant-run businesses and issue heavy fines to people who already have a hard time understanding and keeping up with rapidly-changing rules.
Each time someone with a mental health issue and perhaps other acute needs is turned away from accessing a service or business because they can’t provide proof of vaccination, and this turns into a confrontation, there’s a risk that police will be called and the situation will escalate further. This could easily lead to someone swearing at a police officer, which can be treated as assaulting police, in turn leading to arrests, fines and even jail time if a person doesn’t have access to quality legal representation.
Just this week we were contacted by an unvaccinated homeless person who has been staying in a backpacker hostel. They have a weak immune system, severe mental health issues, and a few other concerns they want to talk to a doctor about that have contributed to the delay in getting the vaccine. They are being kicked out of the hostel (despite having nowhere else to go) because they’re not yet vaccinated.
While a lot of people would likely appreciate the reasoning behind vaccine requirements for backpacker hostels full of travellers, this is yet another example of how marginalised people who are already oppressed by the system can be further penalised by strict, top-down, one-size-fits-all public health measures.
If the government is introducing rules that reduce the availability of low-cost housing for people in crisis, it should also be ensuring those people don’t remain homeless (regardless of vaccination status).
There are many other smaller practical impacts that flow from the check-in and vaccine proof requirements in terms of how people experience community etc. Some of these will be quite significant and detrimental for some people. But my deeper concern with this whole pathway we’re heading down is that we are reinforcing and acquiescing to the idea that top-down semi-coercive government control is the most legitimate form of response available to us as a society in times of crisis.
As many commentators have pointed out, the kinds of tools and tactics that governments have defaulted to using in response to covid-19 should make us very concerned about how our government will respond to future disasters and system failures.
This article is already too long for a detailed exploration of data privacy and the expansion of the state’s panopticon. But it should give all of us some cause for concern how quickly we’ve normalised ‘checking in’ and digitally storing a detailed record of everyone’s movements for the government to access.
When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And unfortunately, the nation-state’s main tools for responding to a crisis seem to be bureaucracy, violence and corporate handouts.
Much of the debate around covid and the vaccines has been reduced to a false dichotomy between ‘individual responsibility’ vs ‘state responsibility.’ This means there’s no room left in the news feed for discussions about the many possible forms of collective responsibility and communal agency. When the state asserts the power to dictate one-size-fits-all public health responses, this arguably diminishes community power to develop evidence-based, bottom-up responses to health crises and other disasters.
Since the outbreak began, we’ve seen many examples of autonomous community responses to limit transmission, such as remote Aboriginal communities deciding for themselves that they would close their towns to outside visitors to stop the virus getting in, and community organisers around the country voluntarily cancelling or restructuring their own community events and projects even before the government lockdowns were announced. Even now, as the government is promoting ‘opening up’ while a new variant of covid is spreading in Brisbane, a lot of people are voting with their feet and taking a more cautious approach than the politicians.
Empowered, well-networked and well-informed local communities are often better placed to define their own evidence-based responses to a crisis. They can respond in a more nuanced way to local context and needs. But when governments disempower communities, they reinforce disengagement and distrust, which in turn undermines community capacity to respond appropriately to future disasters. This is perhaps a whole essay in itself.
You could go so far as to argue that decades of colonialism and neoliberalism have undermined and fragmented community relationships to the point where there genuinely is no other option for governments to limit the spread of a deadly virus. Maybe if we could all trust each other to act responsibly and put the collective good ahead of our own short-term self-interest, top-down government control wouldn’t be needed. But most people in countries like Australia have been indoctrinated into thinking individualistically rather than collectively, which means there’s less capacity for anti-hierarchical community responses to crises (which in turn creates more pressure for the government to use coercive responses as the only option).
Bigger systemic failures
Ultimately, all these debates about whether it’s legitimate for the government to require proof of vaccination to enter or work in certain kinds of businesses are a distraction from the real issue:
Our entire society and way of life is fundamentally broken and unjust.
Those of us who live within dominant-culture Western societies are living out of balance with the world around us.
We’ve designed food, housing and transport systems that are unsustainable and incredibly vulnerable to disruption.
Our culture rewards individualistic competition and promotes relentless consumption and growth.
We exploit and oppress poorer people - mostly people of colour - from overseas, and First Nations people of this continent.
Instead of addressing social problems with better community services and support, we spend more and more money locking people up.
Our society uses violence to control others instead of dialogue to connect with them.
Our very cities and neighbourhoods have been designed in ways that make them especially prone to the rapid spread of viruses. Even lower-density sprawling suburban communities revolve around driving to centralised shopping malls and workplaces where large numbers of people from a wider geographic area converge and mingle.
We’ve created a world where disaster and crisis is inevitable. Whether we agree with this state of affairs or not, we are all complicit in maintaining this unjust and unsustainable paradigm.
The harsh reality is that in a broken system, there are no ‘good’ options. This is the trap that a lot of policymakers and even some Greens politicians risk falling into. Every choice we make is going to disadvantage or harm someone, and is going to have negative flow-on impacts. Effectively, we live in a world where major crises leave us with no good choices.
That doesn’t mean we should give into despair, nor does it mean we should stop critically reflecting on the specific impacts and implications of the choices we do make. But it does mean we have to continually advocate for systemic changes that improve collective resilience and community connectedness.
Covid is a very real, life-threatening disease. And the vaccines do seem to help reduce the spread and severity of the virus. So I can see why some people have decided the ‘mandate’ is necessary. But the whole framework (as of December 2021) ultimately seems like a desperate attempt to patch cracks in a failing system rather than rectifying the underlying injustices and imbalances that got us into this mess.