The anti-vax civil liberties argument is misguided, selfish and lethal

If the nation had S.F.’s vaccination rate, COVID would have much less chance to spread

Only an idiot would consider drunk driving a legitimate expression of personal liberty. And it would take a special kind of ignorance to believe that driving sober is no safer, since most accidents do not involve alcohol.

Yet this is the logic of many who believe that they have a right to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine.

Consider what Fox News host Tucker Carlson — who has the largest audience of any news show on cable TV — told his viewers this spring.

“If you’re worried about COVID, if you’re a high risk, it’s your choice. You can take the vaccine,’’ Carlson reasoned. “Anyone who says maybe I don’t want the vaccine is written off as some kind of lunatic, anti-science, anti-vaccine.”

When Carlson learned vaccines did not eliminate the need for masks and might not provide 100% protection, he argued: “So maybe it doesn’t work and they’re simply not telling you that … What’s the other potential explanation? We can’t think of one.”

There is a reason that people in San Francisco — a city where 82% are fully vaccinated — are still dying of COVID-19. There is a reason that a microscopic variant threatens to set us back months in the struggle against coronavirus.

It’s because a group of zealots — some too dense to understand facts, and others who manipulate data to boost their fame and fortune — have persuaded more than half of Americans that getting a vaccine is a personal choice, rather than a social responsibility.

A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 96% of unvaccinated Republicans rejected the idea of vaccines as a public responsibility, and nearly nine in 10 believe the virus’ seriousness is exaggerated.

It’s enough for the New York Times in a headline last week to question whether San Francisco, “a City That Followed Covid Rules’’ will need to “Change the Playbook’’ now that the omicron variant has been detected.

Vaccine refusers portray the decision as akin to the choice not to wear a motorcycle helmet. It’s a matter of personal liberty.

As Rep. Lauren Boebert put it, as she railed against door-to-door public health campaigns imploring Americans to protect themselves this summer: “Don’t come knocking on my door with your “Fauci ouchie.’ You leave us the hell alone.’’

The position would be laughable if it wasn’t deadly. Vaccine mandates aren’t imposed for paternalistic reasons, like helmet laws. Vaccines are necessary for public safety, like drunk driving laws.

To debate government’s role protecting individuals against harming themselves is reasonable. However, a debate over whether I should be allowed to drive my car into a brick wall loses all reasonableness when the brick wall has a crowd of pedestrians in front of it.

It is commonly accepted — to steal a line mistakenly attributed to John Stuart Mill — that “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.’’ And unvaccinated Americans have landed a solid punch.

Were the rest of the nation vaccinated at San Francisco’s clip, there would be little chance for omicron, delta or the original virus to spread. It is true that even the vaccinated can contract COVID-19, just as a sober person can cause a deadly auto accident. But the odds are overwhelmingly reduced. And the viral load of vaccinated people who catch the virus is significantly less than in those who are not vaccinated.

Which is why the civil liberties argument is misguided, selfish, and lethal.

Carlson reaches nearly 5 million viewers every night. Though most in the Bay Area probably don’t watch the San Francisco native — Carlson was born in the Mission and lived in The City through first grade — those who take him seriously have helped keep the virus alive.

The U.S. vaccination rate ranks 60th in the world, with 60% fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times global vaccination tracker. This in a country where jabs are widely available and free.

The height of personal irresponsibility has been evident this week as details emerge about President Trump’s behavior in the days after he tested positive for COVID-19. The Washington Post chronicled at least 500 people who Trump – refusing to wear a mask or socially distance — met with in the days after his first positive test. They included parents whose kids were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, his own family and Joe Biden, who he debated just three days later.

Either it never occurred to him that his behavior might harm others, or he just didn’t care. Trump says he received a subsequent test that was negative; however, it is more likely that he figured if he already had the virus, going out in public wouldn’t put him at any further risk.

Germany’s health minister recently warned that by spring everyone in his country would either be recovered from COVID, vaccinated or dead. While some may find it tempting to write off those who won’t take care of themselves, none of us live in a vacuum. The failure of the unvaccinated threatens us all.

Carlson isn’t the only TV host pushing dangerous nonsense. Newmax’s Rob Schmidt recently explained “a vaccination, in a weird way, is just generally going against nature.’’

“If there’s some disease out there,’’ he explained, “maybe there’s just an ebb and flow to life where something is supposed to wipe out a certain amount of people, and that’s just the kind of way evolution goes. Vaccines kind of stand in the way of that.’’

Yes, as does exercising, eating a healthy diet, driving sober and respecting prohibitions against murder.

How hard is it to convince people that getting a vaccine is more than taking care of yourself? It is an act of community.

Marc Sandalow is associate director of the University of California’s Washington Program. He has written about Bay Area politics from Washington for over 30 years.

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