Farhad Manjoo: If you skip the vaccine, it is my damn business

When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot then blame people when inevitably they act as if they are.

(Jim Wilson | The New York Times) A syringe is filled with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccine center in Rohnert Park, Calif., Jan. 27, 2021.

When asked if he had gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, Lamar Jackson, a quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, declined to answer. “I feel it’s a personal decision,” he said. “I’m just going to keep my feelings to my family and myself.”

Jackson echoed another NFL quarterback, Cam Newton of the New England Patriots, who said much the same a few days earlier. “It’s too personal to discuss,” Newton replied, when asked if he was vaccinated. “I’ll just keep it at that.”

Jackson and Newton are not the only prominent people to say “hey, it’s personal” when asked about the vaccine. It is a common dodge for public-facing vaccine skeptics or those using vaccine skepticism for their own ends. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s damn business whether I’m vaccinated or not,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, told CNN last month. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wrote similarly (albeit less abrasively) in May that vaccination was a “personal and private decision” and that “no one should be shamed, coerced, or mandated to take COVID-19 vaccines that are being allowed under an emergency use authorization.”

Johnson, and all the others, are wrong. Wearing a helmet while bike riding, strapping on your seat belt in a car — these are personal decisions, at least as far as your own injuries are concerned. Vaccination is different. In the context of a deadly and often debilitating contagion, where the unchecked spread of infection has consequences for the entire society, vaccination is not a personal decision. And inasmuch as the United States has struggled to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19 through vaccination, it is because we refuse to treat the pandemic for what it is: a social problem to solve through collection action.

From the jump, the federal government devolved its response to the pandemic, foisting responsibility onto states and localities, which, in turn, left individual Americans and their communities to navigate conflicting rules and information.

This approach continued with the arrival of vaccines. Until recently, in the face of a vaccination plateau, there was not even a mandate for federal employees to receive the vaccine. States and employers have been left to their own devices, and individuals face a patchwork of rules and mandates depending on where they live and where they work.

Is it any surprise that millions of Americans treat this fundamentally social problem — how do we vaccinate enough people to prevent the spread of a deadly disease — as a personal one? Or that many people have refused to take the shot, citing the privacy of their decision as well as their freedom to do as they choose?

Consider, too, the larger cultural and political context of the United States. We still live in the shadow of the Reagan Revolution and its successful attack on America’s traditions of republican solidarity and social responsibility. “Over the past 50 years,” Mike Konczal writes in “Freedom from the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself From the Grip of the Invisible Hand,” “both our personal lives and our economy have been forced ever more deeply into market dependency.”

This extends into our political lives — and our political selves — as well. If American society has been reshaped in the image of capital, then Americans themselves have been pushed to relate to one another and our institutions as market creatures in search of utility, as opposed to citizens bound together by rights and obligations. If “there are certain habits, certain attributes of character without cultivation of which there can be no individual progress, and therefore no social progress,” as Henry E. Sharpe, a theorist for the Knights of Labor, wrote in 1883, then you could say Americans today are a little out of practice.

Not because they are lazy, of course, but because this is the society we have built, where individuals are left to carry the burdens of life into the market and hope that they survive. This so-called freedom is ill-suited to human flourishing. It is practically maladaptive in the face of a pandemic.

That’s why families and communities were left to fend for themselves in the face of disease, why so many people treat the question of exposure and contagion as a personal choice made privately and why our institutions have made vaccination a choice when it should have been mandated from the start.

Recently, much has been made of the anger and frustration many people feel toward vaccine holdouts. “Vaccinated America Has Had Enough,” declared former Republican speechwriter David Frum in The Atlantic, writing that “the unvaccinated person himself or herself has decided to inflict a preventable and unjustifiable harm upon family, friends, neighbors, community, country, and planet.”

I share this frustration, as well as the anger at the lies and misinformation that fuel a good deal of anti-vaccine sentiment. But I also know that anger toward individuals is ultimately misplaced.

When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot then blame people when inevitably they act as if they are. If we want a country that takes solidarity seriously, we will actually have to build one.

Farhad Manjoo | The New York Times (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Farhad Manjoo is a columnist for The New York Times.