How our duty of care is to one another …



The scientific consensus goes that the holy grail for containing Covid – herd immunity – is achievable. Achievable if enough people get the vaccine – at least 70%, if not 90%, of the world’s population (the figures vary). Also, there is the matter of an annual booster, Covid becoming endemic like your yearly flu. It’ll live among us but not always popping over the fence, working up a fever.
With our adult population vaccinated at around 93%, this augurs well for us, but in many parts of the world, say, Africa, the figure is just 2%, affordability and access being discriminating factors.
Then there are those who have not been vaccinated at all and refuse to do so for, they argue, personal reasons, whether medical, quasi-political or, for want of better term, just ‘cos.
Evidence suggests Covid-19 prevalence will slowly decline, despite the present surge, and most of us are already getting back into a somewhat new take on ‘normal’ life. For such to happen, ‘enough’ people must get vaccinated. And around the world.
This has raised the question of whether we, here in Ireland and elsewhere, should give our surplus shots, not as our boosters but to those many fellow humans in that unenviable position of the affordability factor. It’s a moral conundrum.
The still greater moral conundrum is that, with the urgency to reach the aforementioned holy grail, do we all, every one of us, have a moral obligation to get vaccinated?
The ethics of vaccine choice can be complex, even more so amid genuine ‘concerns’, and then the hostilities with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists clambering for position; politicians and commenters, like Joe Duffy, targeted for really inane reasons.
Admittedly, and this cannot be emphasised enough, there are those who cannot be vaccinated for serious medical reasons, and such individuals’ rights have to be given the full understanding of medical acumen and a decent society.
I have been prompted to comment on this issue because it has hit close to home for me and my, in effect, immediate family. But I respect all parties privacy in the matter.
The discussion of whether or not one should take the Covid-19 vaccine is often framed in terms of individual self-interest; in other words, the benefits outweigh the risk, so go for it.
That is not a moral argument.
Most of us, if asked, believe that others have a wide berth in determining how they care for their own health, so it can be permissible to engage in risky activities – such as bungy jumping or whatever – even when it’s not necessarily in one’s ‘interest’. However, where whether one should get vaccinated IS a moral issue is when it affects others. And here it does, in two ways.
First, vaccines have clearly brought down not only rates of infection but also rates of virus transmission. This means that you getting the vaccine can protect others from you personally and contribute to us all reaching the coveted herd immunity.
Second, according to most eminent scientists, high disease prevalence allows for more genetic mutation, which is exactly how new variants arise. If enough people aren’t vaccinated, and quickly, new variants will develop that are more infectious, more dangerous and also evade current vaccines.
My argument, therefore, says: Getting vaccinated isn’t just about you. Yes, you have the right to take risks with your own safety. But, there is – and here the philosopher John Stuart Mill comes to mind – the fundamental argument that our freedom is limited by the harm it could do to others. No one of us has any divine right to risk other people’s health, and so we are morally obligated to do our part to (in the instance of Covid) reduce that risk to others, in short, infection and transmission rates.
There is an overwhelming reason to get vaccinated. But that in itself does not constitute a moral duty as such, and it doesn’t make an action demandable, i.e. legally enforceable.
Acting as though the moral case is straightforward can be alienating to those who disagree. And minimising the potential risks when we ask others to have a substance injected into their body can be disrespectful.
Much better, I think, to engage others rather than demand from them – even if the force of reason ends up clearly in one corner.
The philosopher Emmanuel Kant rightly argues we would be in breach of our nature as rational human beings if we claimed we had no duty of care for each other.
We do.

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