I have a confession. I am not vaccinated. In his speech last week, President Biden was scolding me.
The impatient Americans to which the president alluded can’t imagine a good reason to refuse the jab. I can think of several.
I am among the millions of Americans who have natural immunity because I had COVID. Officially, 40 million COVID cases have been recorded in the U.S., but millions have had COVID without knowing it or without seeing a doctor. A recent study in Nature estimates that as many as 100 million Americans were infected before the end of 2020, before the 2021 surges. Despite being derided on social media and ignored in policy-making, natural immunity is more durable and effective than vaccine immunity, according to a recent study from Israel. Some argue that a shot “turbocharges” natural immunity, but there’s also evidence that the naturally immune are more likely to suffer serious adverse effects from the vaccine
One has to weigh costs against benefits, as we used to do for all medical procedures before 2020. For me, and for millions of others, the potential costs far outweigh possible benefits. As a policy, requiring the already-immune to get vaccinated makes no sense. It takes vaccines away from those who really need them; it’s costly; and the benefits, if any, are miniscule.
Many have political reasons for being cautious. At the moment, the vaccine appears to protect against severe illness and death, though its efficacy drops off after several months. But the vaccines have a troubling adverse effects profile, and there is simply no way to know whether there are any serious long-term adverse consequences of this new vaccine technology.
Besides, the experts assuring us the vaccines are safe are the same experts who have dissembled and lied throughout the pandemic. They exaggerated the threat and falsely implied that everyone was equally in danger. In the U.K., they engaged in a deliberate psyops agenda. They have downplayed the side effects of vaccines, and many, including scientists, have undermined scientific norms and values in the name of “Science.” Officials imposed and continue to defend lockdowns, long after it’s become clear that lockdowns chiefly protect the least vulnerable, leave behind huge collateral damage, both domestically and globally, and don’t accomplish their stated aims.
In their recent The Great COVID Panic, Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker show that many countries that adopted hardline lockdown strategies did worse in deaths per million than countries that responded with more pragmatic or minimalist policies. The officials assuring us about vaccines are part of the administration that has collaborated with social media companies to suppress information that doesn’t conform to government policy. Given this track record, it’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical.
President Biden’s hectoring speech put none of these suspicious to rest. Quite the opposite. Surely President Biden knew many would dig in their heels. Why would he take this tack? Frijters, Foster, and Baker note the role of “sin stories” during the COVID panic. “A very effective way to dominate people,” they write, “is to convince them they are sinful unless they obey.” Government officials and powerful business leaders use sin stories to divide and control opposition. Corporations break the power of labor by cultivating discord in the workforce; politicians tell sin stories to keep the people from mounting mass opposition. COVID, they note, is “an almost perfect sin story,” one that sets all against all by treating everyone as a potential source of deadly infection and literally distances us from one another so we can’t mount a united opposition. Giant companies told sin stories to kill off small businesses that couldn’t afford to keep up with constantly-changing regulations. And President Biden deepens divisions by presenting himself as president of the vaccinated, whose duty is to protect them from impure semi-citizens like me.
I oppose vaccine mandates because I want to do my small part to gum up the works. I don’t mean the works of the Biden administration, but the much larger global trend toward biopolitical technocracy. As Roberto Esposito put it in Biopolitics, political authority was traditionally the authority to kill. Under the reign of biopolitics, rulers care for and manage life. Once upon a time, the ruler bore a sword; now, a syringe.
“Body politic” is an ancient metaphor, but in biopolitical regimes the body becomes the real place “where the exercise of power [is] concentrated.” Public health takes center stage in a “limitless process of medicalization” as health care is “superimposed” on politics. It’s now the government’s job—its primary job—to keep us safe and healthy. “Life becomes government business,” Esposito writes, and “government becomes first and foremost the governance of life.” To manage life, governments have to exercise social control, keep populations under surveillance, maintain constantly-updated databases, and, as necessary, isolate and separate sectors deemed dangerous to the corporate body. As your personal physician writ large, the state requires regular check-ups and keeps accurate records. Imperious in his white coat, Dr. Government expects you to Follow Orders.
For decades, China has been an exemplary biopolity. The Chinese government takes direct responsibility for reproduction, decreeing how many children each family may have. Brutal suppression of dissident minorities is justified as therapeutic treatment for mental illness or social infection. China’s “social credit system” collects the information the state needs to identify, isolate, treat, and/or eliminate outbreaks of social pathogens.
Vaccination and immunization programs have always loomed large in biopolitical regimes. As Mary Augusta Brazelton puts it in her study of China’s mass vaccination programs, immunization exemplifies “the symbiotic relationship between hygiene and social control.” In China, “Large-scale immunization, sitting at the nexus of individual bodily politics and the governance of populations, was one of the earliest and most important programs that laid the foundations for extensive state control over individual bodies.” Mandatory vaccination builds state power by binding “more and more people into increasingly strong obligations to submit to the orders of the central government.”
To implement its program, China created technologies to develop, distribute, and monitor vaccines. Mass immunization thus produced “a new, modern medical infrastructure that could contribute to the power of the state over life,” an infrastructure that has been deployed for other purposes. China defines citizenship biologically and medically. Vaccination status has “dictated the ability to travel,” while state propaganda portrays compliant citizens as model comrades. To submit to a vaccine mandate is implicitly to endorse a political order that is willing to make participation in everyday life contingent on an unwanted medical procedure. It’s the biopolitical equivalent of hanging a “Workers of the world, unite!” banner in your shop window.
Can’t happen here? That’s what they said when Wuhan locked down. A year and a half into this surrealist drama, is it still unthinkable that the unvaxxed may eventually be classified as domestic terrorists?
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Photo by Zhou Guanhai via Creative Commons. Image cropped.