Home >Opinion >Columns >The tragically misguided zeal of US anti-vaccination libertarians
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An enduring principle in America is to oppose the intrusion of the Big State into personal lives. It is a self-serving assertion because many Americans love the state when it helps them, but myths are hard to resist.

Axioms about self-reliance can have fatal and devastating consequences, as the United States is finding out. The world’s most powerful country is experiencing an inexplicably incredible saga over vaccines. The roll-out of vaccines has been astonishingly successful—the nation is now awash with vaccines and it is able to give a booster dose to everyone. You can get your shots at pharmacies; you need not be a citizen; you do not have to pay for the vaccination.

And yet, a substantial minority of the US stubbornly refuses to get vaccinated.

The state is exasperated. Some cities have passed mandates requiring private businesses to deny entry to gyms, malls, and restaurants to the unvaccinated. Employers are asked to ensure that their staff is vaccinated. Colleges and universities have set rules on masking and vaccine protection, and courts have agreed with these rules.

And yet, naysayers oppose covid jabs. Some health workers are threatening to resign because they remain unconvinced of the vaccines’ effectiveness. Many see a matter of public health as a privacy intrusion. When I landed in Entebbe a few years ago, I did not know that Uganda had had a yellow fever outbreak and needed me to show that I had a certificate proving I had received my yellow-fever shot. The airline hadn’t told me, and Uganda was not on the list.

I wasn’t carrying my World Health Organization-authorized certification, and so I was asked to get injected (for about $30) at a WHO kiosk, and I did. Millions have had to show evidence of immunity from certain diseases upon arrival in many countries. But America’s neo-libertarians want to say ‘no’.

So the state has reacted, as it must. President Joe Biden has made vaccine mandatory for federal employees and urged the private sector to do the same. Some companies are imposing costs on the unvaccinated by raising their health insurance premiums. Social relations are fraying. people are being disinvited from weddings unless they can somehow promise they are vaccinated.

The irony is that those who usually resent state power and intrusion (like me) support mandatory vaccination (except for those who have health- related reasons), and those who usually don’t care for others’ liberties want to say ‘no’. The unvaccinated are getting blamed for the spread of the Delta variant. They are scouring the internet looking for maverick scientists who put together charts and toss around scientific terminology to sanctify their scepticism and give it an undeserved intellectual veneer, as the naysayers cling to their beliefs. Meanwhile, obtuse talk-show hosts who had refused to get vaccinated have fallen sick. Some have died, and a few have admitted on their death-bed that they were wrong.

Meanwhile, intensive care units at US hospitals are getting crowded and critical care is denied to patients of other serious illnesses, including cancer and heart attacks, because the covid- affected are getting the beds that others would have got. If only the unvaccinated had taken their shots.

It is clear that this is now a pandemic of the unmasked and the unvaccinated.

To be sure, vaccines won’t make you immortal. But the vaccinated are less likely to fall seriously ill, and far less likely to die because of covid infection, than those who refuse to mask up or say no to the jab. The American map of parts of the country that are well vaccinated and those that aren’t looks like the map of a nation at civil war.

And yet, many refuse to get their covid shots. The blame lies as much with America’s self-destructive cultural wars and the ease with which misinformation spreads. The harsh but simple truth of the US is: If you voted Trump, you are more likely to be unvaccinated. Trumpian governors, like Florida’s Ron deSantis and Texas’ Greg Abbott, are seen to perpetuate these attitudes.

The unvaccinated deserve protection, but the case for this is far weaker if they have ignored federal health advisories. Individual rights matter, but if an assertion of these rights harms the rights of other individuals, then a viable compromise has to be found to mitigate the harm to the many.

True, a person has the right to wave his arms around, but if those arms strike another person, then the arm-waver needs to be restrained. It is that simple; it is what the American Civil Liberties Union has stressed. The ACLU has never been shy of fighting unpopular causes. Years ago, in a famous case, it had defended the right of post-war Nazis to march through a street in Skokie, Illinois, where Holocaust survivors lived. Its lawyers have also defended prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, including those who were arrested for supporting terrorism, because everything about that infamous US-run prison violated the right to a fair trial that everyone must have.

Democracies have always recognized the challenge of persuading people rather than forcing them to do something. Vaccine mandates may seem like an outrageous leap into the unknown, policy-wise, but the rights of the vulnerable too matter.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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