This article first appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on November 27, 2021
In response to dramatic spikes in COVID-19 cases and low voluntary vaccination rates, many
European governments have declared new lockdowns and issued mandatory vaccine mandates. Protests have taken place in Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris, and many other cities in response. On Saturday, November 20, tens of thousands of people, many of them far right supporters, filled Heroes' Square in front of the Hofburg, the former imperial palace in central Vienna.
Austria plans a general mandate to come into effect on February 1. With the anticipated winter spike already well underway, this date may not be soon enough. The hope is that the threat of fines will encourage enough people to get the population closer to herd immunity. Currently Austria is reporting 15,000+ new cases per day. This is higher than even last winter when the world experienced the deadliest months for COVID. The situation is indeed dire. Why? Austria has the lowest general vaccination rate in Western Europe at an estimated 66%. One third of the population has not and/or will not get the shot. This is not even close to the levels that might let things return to normality
As I wrote in The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World, these kinds of drastic measures are what happens when short-term political self-protection and general myopia are chosen over sensible, longer-term planning and direct and decisive action. The protesters who say that these drastic measures are the result of earlier dithering are not wrong. That they themselves represent the constituency who also made the earlier measures politically impossible is also true.
“No one wants a lockdown” says Austria’s Green health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, offering the understatement of the year. For some, however, the cause of the lockdown is not the spike in cases or the low vaccination rates that cause the spike, but simply the government that implements the measure. They have taken to the streets to ensure that everyone hears their drumbeat of misapprehension.
Austria’s measure extends to 12 December and it is unusually specific in that, like earlier historical quarantines, it applies only to the unvaccinated, physically separating from the vaccinated. People who have taken this basic step may enjoy the return to the open city. Those who actively refuse to participate in the immunological commons are, some may say, getting exactly what they asked for. The anti-vaccination protester says, “I do not personally, individually, wish to be part of this immunological commons." Society responds, “OK, here you go.”
A young woman who took part in the protests in Vienna last week was quoted in the New York Times saying "individually, it is a free decision, and I think that if people get the vaccine that’s OK and legitimate, but I am a young, healthy person and it’s not an issue for me.”
What to make of someone who, after all these months, still thinks that the rationale for her getting vaccinated is simply to protect herself, individually, not all the other people with whom she comes into contact, and who they come into contact with, and so on? Is it possible that among the many flailing government responses over the past two years that not educating people as to how contagion works is among them? Maybe. It seems more likely that the public noise-to-information ratio has unleashed a backlash culture as cognitively incoherent as it is angry.
Arguably, the world capital of this global pandemic of reactionary-anarchic stupidity is the American state of Florida, home to many genuinely wonderful cities and people as well as some of the most flamboyant examples of human weakness. Florida is both a real place and, for the time being at least, a School of Thought for public health policy.
What is “Florida”? It has become a byword not for the vibrant Latino-Caribbean cosmopolitanism of Miami, but for a swampy approach to modern life. As a meme, it derives from bizarre newspaper headlines (real and satirical) about convoluted mishaps beginning with “Florida Man…”, as in “Florida Man Loses Arm Trying to Fly Pet Alligators to Liquor Store in Stolen Airplane”. Alternatively, Florida Man suggests an apocryphal stage in hominid evolutionary development, like Peking Man or Piltdown Man.
The real Florida has genuine oddball charm, but during the pandemic this was easily outweighed by a backbone streak of dumb meanness. The current leader of this place is self-proclaimed “mini-Trump”, Gov. Ron Desantis, a red-faced shill for cheap tabloid politics, scam medicines, and improbable theories of good-enough epidemiology. This bellicose champion of freedom from State imperatives used his governor’s executive pen to make it illegal for schools to require masks and tried to forbid companies from requiring vaccinations of their employees. This has led the symbolic and real opposition to all public and private attempts to deal with the pandemic directly, quickly, and collectively, doing so in the name of keeping the economy “open”, consequences be damned.
As of this week, Disney World in Orlando, no longer requires employees to be vaccinated. Pilgrims to this sacred Floridian city are now assured that the freedom of the non-unionized staff to get them sick has not been suppressed by the “medical fascists.” The Florida School of pandemic governance holds that not only are public health measures unnecessary, but that they are actually forbidden. They are ontologically unacceptable.
Fredric Jameson wrote that conspiracy theory is, among other things, a folk theory of social totality. It is; but it is one that impoverishes the imagined roles for its adherent: victim, outcast truth-teller, or sheeple. Those are the options. The effect of this impoverishment is that it offers no maneuverability within the imagined totality, and so things escalate to all-or-nothing almost immediately. The inverse dynamic may also be true: do low-maneuverability theories of social totality tend toward conspiratorial thinking? If so, this may help explain the heterogeneous and rag-tag coalitions that have cohered around common opposition to even basic public health governance.
"Down with the fascist dictatorship” chanted many of the protesters in Vienna, some of them earnestly carrying illegal Nazi-era symbols as they march alongside others carrying them accusingly and ironically, themselves alongside others not quite sure which is which. The Philip K. Dick-ian spectacle of neo-Fascist and far-right nativists protesting “fascism” is what you get when fascism is misdefined for decades as secular urban technocracy rather than as pastoral nationalist idealism.
These partisans of an “organic” nationalism (with aftertastes of shared soil, blood and all the rest) are those who, in this case, seem most adamant to defend individualistic social atomization as an existential principle. The irony is definitely lost in translation. Their idea that the individual body is sovereign from others, not just legally but biologically, lines up with the belief that a nation is sovereign from the world, not just legally but biologically, at least as long as you don’t think about it too hard. Neither form of magical thinking can make any real sense of a global pandemic.
Back in the USA, the phrase posed by our anti-vaccine mandate thought leaders is “bodily autonomy”. It is meant to describe both a natural state of things (“bodies are naturally and normally autonomous from one another'') and an ideal ethical principle and equilibrium to be defended (“I must keep my body autonomous from forces that would make it non-autonomous or which would even define my body as non-autonomous”). For some people faced with the mortal reality of non-autonomy the principle is modified by practical needs, and for others it is elevated from a vague attitude to an existential stand.
That is, the principle is now being voiced as an ethical norm that supersedes even the reality it purports to explain. If there is a circumstance, such as a pandemic, that demonstrates that individual bodies clearly are not always autonomous from another but also mutually entangled as, for example, infection vectors, then the stance on behalf of bodily autonomy seems to be standing against the reality of contagion itself. One may reasonably hold physical autonomy as an important ideal, but if infected by someone else, then one’s body clearly is not entirely autonomous from theirs, and vice versa.
It is the “vice versa” that is the obvious purpose of mass vaccination. As we are both human beings, my body is (perhaps unfortunately) not totally autonomous from those of the willfully unvaccinated. Those who calculate the risk only in terms of their vulnerability from others, and refuse to perceive that the more relevant risk is actually the inverse, may ultimately conclude that reality itself is unjust. If so, then reality will just have to give way to the ideal. And in the minds of some it actually does.
The sociologist Bruno Latour has suggested that to address the politics of climate change we must first accept that we live on different planets. He counts 7 of them. I wonder what Latour would make of Kyrie Irving (and vice versa). Irving is an NBA player who is sitting out the season because he refuses to be vaccinated and New York City law thereby prevents him from working at the local sports arena. He is a hero to some, but to most he is a well-meaning but misguided soul, a spoiled jerk, or worse.
Irving was previously known for his “just asking questions” claim that the Earth may be flat, and that people should do their own research and make their own conclusions. When pressed, Irving’s responses suggested that it wasn’t the shape of the planet per se that mattered to him but rather the principle of people finding their own reality undoctored by corrupt elites, and that, finally if for them the Earth is flat then for them it is.
Irving may be an idiosyncratic voice, but he is not alone. Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers NFL team, has given song to his own idea of “bodily autonomy”, choosing alternative treatments and expensive placebos over the required vaccine, and initially lying about it. With the narcissistic conviction only mediocre rich people can muster, Rodgers says that “these treatments are right for me” as if his decision makes it so. As a wealthy athlete surrounded by people paid to tell him how great he is, to cater to his every whim and to shape reality to his desires, his lived experience has trained him that if he thinks “bodily autonomy” is actually more real than bodily entanglement, then it is. Or, rather, then it is for him. And yet, reality doesn’t actually bend this way.
The absurd levels of entitlement bestowed upon Irving and Rodgers to decide for themselves is an aspirational ideal for many people with almost no privilege by comparison. From above and below, their mutually reinforcing fantasies align into a solipsistic biopolitics and an avant-garde of anti-epistemology. The virus is or is not real, and it’s really your choice to decide. The virus is or is not deadly, and finally, it’s about your sense of personal risk. The vaccine causes autism. The virus causes autism. Autism causes the virus. Lockdowns cause infertility. Fauci causes gain-of-function. China caused the lockdowns. Anti-parasitic drugs cure the virus which doesn’t exist. Masks cause 5G. Homeopathy cures disease. Disease causes Astrology. Macron is Q. It’s really all up to you. Be your own truth. Don’t believe what they tell you, free thinker.
The most memorable and crystalline articulation of this comes from an aggressively “anti-Plandemic” Swiss academic who told me that the vaccine is “literally injecting The Establishment into your bloodstream.” This is an accidentally brilliant insight that explains a lot in less than ten words. Bill Gates, Asia, 5G, Big Pharma, the State, Big Tech, the “complacent masses”, the Modern Techno-Industrial Complex, global capitalism, the Libs, the Man, etc. Anything real or imagined that someone may fear or despise about the contemporary power structure is what’s really in the vaccine. It is malevolence itself synthesized into a serum and forced upon you, literally into you. If you inject it then you are biologically hybridized with its wicked aims, your precarious freedom eaten alive from the inside.
Back in the real world, the political, economic, ethical trade-offs of the pandemic were, are, and will remain complex and contradictory. Lockdowns both prevented and caused misery. Closing borders and sending everyone back to their country of passport both enabled and prevented access to care. Chaotic bureaucratic responses both saved and costs lived. Accelerated public-private vaccine research both caused unprecedented immunological defense response and also refortified the structural inequities between the global North and South.
Finally, what is a vaccine mandate? Who or what is really issuing it? In this case, such as after a decisive election, the governing mandate is issued by the population to and toward the State to follow. The government enforces this mandate more than it is the sovereign position of its issuance.
Analogies are plentiful but dismal. If the train is heading to a crash and yet a minority of the passengers refuse to believe that the crash is coming, or in the legal right of the conductor to take action, or perhaps even in the existence of the tracks themselves, then the other passengers have every right to override them. They have the right to establish a mandate for action, and for mass vaccination they have done so.
If you feel a sinking dread that the pandemic is actually just beginning, you are not alone. The world could have spent the last year vaccinating 7 billion people, but instead argued about patents and “bodily autonomy”. As the Omicron variant makes itself known and others perhaps loom on the horizon, at least people can look forward to learning the Greek alphabet.
Everyone wants to return to an open city as fast as possible. If the mandates do encourage enough people to get vaccinated such that the winter spike is merely bad, this will be interpreted by the protesters as proof that the mandates were not needed in the first place. “See, there is no flood after all. We didn’t need to build this stupid levee.”
First World problems such as this are depressing. This is a debate we should not even have to have. About vaccines, it is a debate that has been recurring for hundreds of years, and it always resolves in the same way eventually. It produces a dissenting minority who lives to see the next generation of the debate because enough of their neighbors overruled them.
The situation is complex, but the options are pretty stark. What is the alternative to accelerated vaccine driven herd immunity? It is months more of intermittent spikes, periodic lockdowns, vaccine resistant variants, lost jobs, lost years, lost lives. If that is what ends up happening, instead of quick and decisive vaccination, then remember this moment. Remember who and what is really to blame.