Flat White

Is it freedom versus vaccines?

28 July 2021

1:06 PM

28 July 2021

1:06 PM

For those who believe both in the freedom and dignity of the individual and also understand the science around virus transmission and vaccination this has been a difficult period, particularly when discussion starts. The argument normally ends up against both sides – with the people who wish to impose lockdowns, mask mandates and travel limits as well as the anti-vaxxers and those calling for all measures to be abandoned.

Neither approach is consistent with an understanding of either the science or the dignity of the individual.

The need to make restrictions easy to impose frequently results in the restrictions being more onerous than is necessary – and often illogical. The approach in Western Australia (for example) in stopping all travel from a particular state, even when an outbreak is confined to a small area, simply makes no sense.

The federal ban on leaving Australia, other than with exit permission from the government, is also unjustified. People leaving the country are, by definition, no threat to those who are here and the pleading that it’s to reduce the numbers attempting to return is not warranted. If those leaving are aware they travel at their own risk, then that should be the end of the matter. It’s not for any government to try to take on risks that we voluntarily accept.

On the other hand, the reflexive rejection of common-sense measures to limit the spread of a virus that does pose a risk to human health, particularly in the vulnerable (such as cancer patients and the immunosuppressed) is, at best, short-sighted. Yes, the virus poses little threat to the otherwise young and healthy – but the risk in keeping the virus alive in the population is more to those who are vulnerable. Freedom is not free – and one of the prices we must pay is taking responsibility for our own actions. If there is a simple way to reduce the risk we pose to others, then it’s our job to deal with that.

For those of us who can have a vaccination, it’s one way in which we can help those around us at minimal risk to ourselves. When we are aware that the virus is possibly active around us, then wearing a mask, limiting travel and washing hands when appropriate are responsible things to do.

I don’t believe that these should be forced on us under penalty of law — social pressure should be enough to get most of the population to do these things. Employers have a duty to their employees to provide a safe workplace (and vaccines are a part of this), universities must ensure risks to their students are minimised and private landowners can require you to follow some basic rules whilst on their premises.

In this, the protests last weekend were counter-productive. The idea of a protest movement is to move people, to get them to understand, if not to immediately agree with, the point that is being made. The vision of people walking en masse without masks (whatever the science on mask-wearing in the open actually is) along with the media coverage of the horse “punching” incident, not only failed to get the message across, but also actively turned away the majority of people that do care about viral transmission and understand that the virus is a bad thing.

Change can be achieved by simply ensuring we understand the risks, and benefits, that come from a free society. The idea that we will only do this if the government gives us a list and threatens to throw us in prison if we do not comply infantilises us all – and promotes conspiracy theories that drive much of the opposition to their measures.

As with almost everything –- allowing the people to choose their own way to deal with the risks presented may be a messier approach than simply following a set of rules – but it is likely to have a far better outcome in the long run. A population that actively tries to do the right thing without being forced and is engaged in debates without the whip hand being held over them, enriches us all. We are left much the poorer if either the information or the debate about it is suppressed.

Andrew Reynolds is chief advisor at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation.

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