Individual choice vs social responsibility

7th August 2021

Vaccination roll out – Britain begins to lose ground

At a community centre in North East England earlier this week a group of masked men with bodycams entered the building.  They proceeded to film noticeboards, question staff about the times of the vaccination clinic and, when challenged, claimed they could do what they liked as they were in a public building.  Police were called but arrived too late to make any arrests.  Staff were shaken by the incident but unharmed.

Similar scenes have taken place across the country as the intimidation tactics of the anti-vaccination lobby underline the governments failure to take a hard enough line on vaccination resistance.  Those opposed to the vaccination programme either hail from the right wing libertarian position of individual choice above all else or, the equally reactionary anarchist view that anything the government suggests must be bad, therefore must be opposed.

There are of course many reasons to oppose governments, not least the British government and its overall inept handling off the pandemic.  However, that should not blind anyone to the necessity of behaving in a socially responsible way in the face of an international public health emergency.  There is rarely, if ever, a good case for putting individual choice over social responsibility.  A pandemic is certainly not the time.

The British vaccination programme has been hailed as the one great success of the government’s pandemic strategy, if it can be described that coherently, but latest data shows that the Britain is starting to lag behind European countries in vaccine take up.

According to figures collated by OurWorldInData there are six EU states now ahead of the UK in having a larger share of their populations with two shots of a Covid vaccine.  Malta, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Ireland are all ahead of Britain in terms of the percentages of their populations who are double jabbed.

Among 18 – 30 year olds in Britain an estimated 33% are yet to get their first shot, yet 20% of those in hospital with Covid symptoms are in this age group.  This gives the lie to the perception, not challenged strongly enough by the government, that young people are not at risk.

Elsewhere in Europe vaccine incentives are becoming the norm with France, Denmark, Italy and Greece all adopting various proof of vaccination measures before permitting access to public events and indoor activities such as cinemas and museums.  Britain has deferred introducing similar measures till the end of September.  In the meantime social mixing proliferates and infection rates amongst younger people continue to be high. The right to infect others, by refusing vaccination, is not a right which should be encouraged.

The anti-vaccination lobby are tacitly encouraged by the right wing of the Conservative Party and, in particular, the so called Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs, who have been pursuing a herd immunity strategy, effectively holding Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hostage if the economy is not opened up further.

Johnson’s libertarian tendencies are only slightly tempered by the rising death count, still the hghest in Europe, but as that slows the temptation to be sucked further into the orbit of the CRG may prove too much for a politician not known for sticking to any fixed position.

The propensity to elevate individual choice over social responsibility is a function of capitalism itself and finds its most heightened expression in the USA around the ‘right’ to bear arms.  It is no surprise that the anti-vaccination lobby in the US is not only vociferous but aligned to the most reactionary elements in the political spectrum.

Even where ‘health pass’ plans have been implemented in the EU there is no guarantee that the population will comply, as recent protests in Paris have illustrated.  Persuasion is still necessary. The push within the British political establishment, away from notions of social responsibility and towards a greater emphasis upon individual choice, has been marked in the past forty years.  The deconstruction of Council housing, comprehensive education, local government, trade union rights and attempts to privatise sections of the NHS are all examples of this.

The idea expressed by the masked men in the North East, that they could do what they liked because they were in a public building, flows from the same mentality.  However, public space is about sharing, co-operating and managing for the collective good.  It is not there for any individual to do as they please, just because it is public.

Sometimes lost in the practicalities of the pandemic is the ideological battle that is necessary to shift people’s thinking away from an exclusive focus upon personal circumstances to the challenge of addressing the collective need.  This banner was raised briefly during the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the establishment moved quickly to tear it down.  In part because they were opposed to it but more significantly because of the resonance they saw it was having with many people.

The idea that things should be done ‘for the many, not the few’ was in danger of becoming more than a political slogan.  It needs to be rediscovered, applied to the present circumstances of the pandemic and carried well beyond if the battle of ideas is to be won. 

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