Flat White

Why haven’t we heard more from the human rights bureaucracy about Covid and our liberties?

2 August 2021

5:04 PM

2 August 2021

5:04 PM

Just about everyone would agree that a child born in Australia should have the same opportunities and rights as any other Australian child. Race, disability, or religious belief should not be a barrier to what they can do or what they can achieve or where they can go.

These are human rights. They are built into various declarations that form cornerstones of liberal democracies around the world.

But what about human rights regarding their medical status?

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has signalled that states may be allowed to stop people from travelling based on whether or not they have been vaccinated. Surely we need to talk about the ethics of this.

Vaccines are unlike other medicines because they don’t seek to cure illness or return us to our normal function. They provide upgrades to our natural characteristics — namely immunity.

There is a word to describe changing the characteristics of humans like this — it is “transhumanism”.

If you think this sounds like science fiction you would be right. The 1997 dystopian movie Gattaca is the common pop culture reference for discussions around the ethics of transhumanism. In this film a genetic registry database is used to classify people who are created with eugenics as “valids” while people who are conceived naturally and more susceptible to diseases are known as “invalids”.

There are already some intriguing developments in transhumanism. Recently, there has been progress on developing mind-controlled prosthetics that may allow prosthetic limbs to convey sensation to amputees. It’s a small step from using this technology for restoring bodily function to upgrading it. Nootropic or performance-enhancing drugs, which improve cognitive or physical abilities, could also create a form of transhumanism. 

An important distinction is that these actions do not confer special rights that are denied to others, but we should have no problem with informed individuals choosing to change themselves.

But the pandemic is a game-changer. It means that government policy on this issue could impact on hundreds of millions of people.  The pandemic led to a massive effort around the world to develop vaccines, and the emergence of new technologies such as mRNA vaccines have the potential to revolutionise medical care.

So the future has arrived, but have the ethics been fully considered? Medical technology has the capability of creating different categories of humans and, if we are not careful, a new tier of second class citizens –- the “invalids”.

Should the state discriminate against a person who is unvaccinated? Or should they protect them from discrimination?

What about those left behind? Allowing states to discriminate against people who choose not to be vaccinated is a form of medical apartheid. It has the potential to be a major problem for unvaccinated people from remote areas or third world countries — which would be like discriminating against people for being simply human and poor.

It could also be a problem for others who may have religious or medical reasons not to have a jab, or children who remain unvaccinated through no choice of their own.

Before we start locking people out of states and denying their right to freedom of movement, this is a very serious ethical issue that should be discussed and considered from a human rights perspective.

Unfortunately, the form is not good, because we have seen many human rights issues tossed aside during the pandemic with little or no thought.

The Victorian Ombudsman’s office is the only independent body to have investigated human rights issues in detail in relation to the pandemic. Following an investigation into the lockdown of public housing towers in Melbourne last year, Ombudsman Deborah Glass found the actions of the government breached the Victorian Human Rights Charter.

Despite her damning report, it seems doubtful the Victorian Government learnt anything at all, because they still refuse to apologise.

This example of a disproportionate response is just the tip of the iceberg.

Forget about circuit breaker lockdowns, we need to break the circuit of government over-reach. We need to take at least a little time to reassess the implications for human rights.

Are we marching blindly into a world where discrimination against people for simply being human becomes acceptable and commonplace? I’m sure that some will argue that this is an emergency and the normal rules shouldn’t apply. But if we abandon our principles for this, then what are they worth? 

We can start by respecting people’s liberty and their medical choices. We need to stop demonising people who, for whatever reason, would rather not have the needle or are unable to be vaccinated.

David Limbrick is the Liberal Democrats MLC for Victoria’s South East Metropolitan region.

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