My fellow Daily Friend contributor Jonathan Katzenellenbogen threw the cat amongst the pigeons by announcing his support for vaccine passports. While we await the publication of counter-arguments, I’ll go a step further.

‘Ivo only pretends to care about liberty. In reality his beliefs are identical with Fabian Socialism.’

That was one of the funnier responses I received when I tweeted, with approval, the article Vaccine passports, please, by financial journalist and fellow Daily Friend contributor Jonathan Katzenellenbogen. 

In this game you have to be quick. Just last week, I was defending classical liberal principles from the accusation that they were too right-wing. This week, we’re all a bunch of socialists, as Ludwig von Mises yelled at Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and assorted other free marketeers at the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947.

As I’m writing this, Katzenellenbogen’s piece has elicited 346 comments, and 145 emoji reactions. Of the latter, 64% were angry, and a further 10% were sad. Only 15% of the respondents (me among them) thought the article merited a thumbs-up.

The editors at the Daily Friend received a flood of what can only be described as hate mail, and quickly penned an editorial explaining that ‘[i]t is fundamental to classical liberalism that contentious ideas be expressed and debated’.

I’ve been informed that at least two articles are in the works taking issue with Katzenellenbogen’s position, and that’s great. There are certainly arguments both for and against vaccine passports that are perfectly consistent with broader liberal principles. Contrary to the illiberal right and the illiberal left, liberals tend not to take a dogmatic, prescriptive line on public policy issues, and are open to civil debate when opinions differ.

Not illiberal

As Katzenellenbogen himself explained very well, there is nothing inherently illiberal about the idea of a vaccine passport. 

Even according to my libertarian view of the world, which grants governments even less scope for intervention in the personal, social and economic lives of citizens than a classical liberal would concede, government has a mandate to protect life, liberty and property.

John Stuart Mill, as Katzenellenbogen noted, set an excellent rule of thumb known as the ‘harm principle’ for permissible government intervention: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

This is the basis on which I do not object to laws against drunk driving, or to building safety standards. This is also the basis on which I prefer schools to require childhood vaccinations. 

If you accept, therefore (and I do), that the vaccinated present less harm to others than the unvaccinated, one can reasonably conclude, well within the framework of classical liberal thought, that vaccine passports – and indeed vaccine mandates – are a justified government intrusion upon our lives.

When I last wrote about the subject, I said that while mandatory Covid vaccines could be justified in principle, they cannot be justified in South Africa in practice. My hesitancy to endorse mandatory vaccination was not grounded on libertarian principles, because I don’t think mandatory vaccination violates libertarian principles (and I never did think so).

My hesitancy was based on the notion that herd immunity in South Africa is, and always was, a pipe dream. I was also concerned by some recent speculation that the vaccinated might be just as infectious as the unvaccinated.

My mistake

I have since learned that I was mistaken, and had fallen for some typical anti-vax cherry-picking and statistical sleight-of-hand. (A good example of how this works can be found in this explanation of why the anti-vaxxers are so enamoured with Israeli data, and why they’re wrong about it.)

While it is true that people who experience so-called ‘breakthrough infections’ can harbour similar viral loads to unvaccinated infectees, the viral load decreases faster in vaccinated individuals, which makes them inherently less likely to spread the virus than unvaccinated people. In addition, breakthrough infections are rare, so per capita, the unvaccinated are far more likely to transmit Covid than the vaccinated.

This confirms numerous studies that found that vaccination substantially reduces Covid transmission

This undermines my one concern about mandating vaccines: that this wouldn’t meaningfully protect other people from harm. 

My other concern was that herd immunity won’t be reached in any case, but I’m reconsidering that as a valid objection to vaccine mandates, too.

The share of the population that needs to be immune has risen from 60% for the original strain of the virus to perhaps as high as 90% for the delta variant.

This is a direct consequence of the transmissibility of the virus. The original strain had a reproductive number R0 of about 2.5. That is, every infected person was likely to infect on average 2.5 other people. 

The share of the population that needs to be immune to achieve herd immunity is given by the formula 1 – (1/R0). For R0=2.5, that works out to 0.6, or 60%. As Katzenellenbogen points out, vaccine hesitancy of near 40% places this target well out of reach if one relies only on vaccines.

The reproductive number of the delta variant is at least 5, and perhaps as high as 9,5. That places the herd immunity threshold somewhere between 80% and almost 90%. Prof Shabir Madhi, from Wits, puts it at 84%.

That we won’t reach herd immunity with vaccines alone is a poor argument against requiring widespread vaccination, however. 

Vaccination is a far safer way to reach immunity than natural infection with Covid-19. Serious vaccine side-effects are exceedingly rare, while the disease frequently causes severe illness, death, and serious, often permanent, long-term damage to various organs including the kidneys, heart, lungs and brain.

Eventually, we’ll probably have to make up the shortfall in vaccination immunity with natural immunity, and hope that the virus will ultimately evolve into something more contagious but far less harmful than delta. (This is typical for virus evolution: not killing hosts is an evolutionary advantage.) When that happens, we can probably begin to treat Covid like we treat seasonal colds and flu now.

Mandatory vaccines

Given all this, much of the case against mandatory vaccination falls away. It doesn’t violate liberal principles, because it satisfies Mill’s harm principle. It significantly reduces the risk of Covid not only to the vaccinated person, but also to other people. 

This is especially important for people who, for medical reasons such as frailty, cancer treatment or other immune-compromising conditions, are unable to be vaccinated themselves.

Last time around, I noted that the World Health Organisation does not recommend vaccine mandates, because its ethical guidelines state that ‘if public health goals, such as herd immunity, protecting the most vulnerable, or protecting the capacity of the healthcare system, can be achieved with less coercive or intrusive policy interventions, such as public education, a mandate would not be ethically justified’.

That is a conditional statement. If public health goals such as herd immunity, protecting the most vulnerable, or protecting the capacity of the healthcare system cannot be achieved with less coercive or intrusive policy interventions, a mandate would be ethically justified.

That leaves only the WHO’s concern that making vaccines mandatory is likely to undermine public confidence in the scientific community and public trust in vaccines generally, which Katzenellenbogen echoes: ‘The very act of making them compulsory might raise protest and hesitancy.’

That is a valid concern, but it is hardly a very strong argument against vaccine mandates on its own. Therefore, I not only support Katzenellenbogen’s call for a vaccine passport, but I’ll go a step further. 

Although I wouldn’t recommend making vaccines mandatory, I also would not oppose it if it happens. Unless you’re an anarchist who rejects all state power, no matter its purpose, a vaccine mandate would violate no libertarian or classical liberal principles.

I’ll reserve my energy for fighting intrusive government lockdown measures that really do infringe on our basic rights and liberties, such as arbitrarily closing businesses or preventing travel.

Moot point

That said, the argument is probably moot. It seems unlikely that the South African government will make vaccines mandatory, or has the capacity to give effect to such a plan if it did. 

Even a vaccine passport will be a stretch for our sorry excuse for a government, judging by its struggles to issue new identity cards and renew drivers’ licences. 

However, private entities and foreign countries are entitled to attach conditions to who they deal with, and not posing a reasonably avoidable risk to others is among them. For that purpose, a formal and fairly secure vaccine passport, based on records in the Electronic Vaccine Data System, will be rather more reliable than those hand-scribbled little cards everyone got. 

A vaccine passport would go a long way towards encouraging vaccination, shortening the path to herd immunity, getting our moribund tourism and hospitality industries back on their feet, and re-integrating South Africa into the global economy.

All of these are benefits, and none violate liberal principles.

[Photo: Marisol Benitez for unsplash]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR