The vital public health measure of vaccination is being transformed into a project of the extension of state control, with measures such as covid passports and mandatory vaccination.
The Israeli minister of health was caught confiding to the minister of the interior that ‘there is no medical or epidemiological justification for the Covid passport, it is only intended to pressure the unvaccinated to vaccinate’. France – the European country with the harshest covid pass laws – shows how this ‘pressure to vaccinate’ is driven by a political rather than a medical impulse.
The vaccination pass is a mobilisation of state power, an extension of discipline and policing over the free life of civil society. This rides roughshod over individual liberty, unions, scientific committees and medical logic alike.
Currently, all over-12s in France must present a vaccine passport (‘pass sanitaire’) in order to access restaurants, museums, long-distance trains, and outdoor and indoor sports facilities. All civil society bodies take on a policing function. Covid pass checks are installed at the entrance of open-air horse riding facilities, in bars, at the entrance of swimming pools. The sports instructor checks your covid pass at the start of every class or term. The riding school asks you to ‘prepare your health certificate’ before you are allowed to walk into the open field where the horses are held. The cafe asks you to scan your QR code before sitting down at a table.
The vaccinated person is treated as safe, and the unvaccinated person as risky. This distinction is made not on public health grounds, since vaccinated and unvaccinated transmit the delta variant at similar rates, but because the unvaccinated person stands as the figure that has resisted state authority. The unvaccinated becomes the dissident, the person who refused to roll over. A young French woman who tried to enter a shopping centre without a covid pass was set upon and beaten by a group of armed police. She was beaten not because she is a public health risk, but because she represents a threat to public order.
The push for 100% vaccination has become a project of incorporating the whole population, whether it is in their interests to be vaccinated or not.
It is this political impulse that lies behind the hasty extension of vaccination to younger age groups, who stand to benefit little from the vaccine and could suffer from short-term or future side effects. Macron apparently made the decision to extend vaccines to 12-15 year olds suddenly one morning, when he was told by his scientific advisory committee that he had ‘free rein’ to decide whether to vaccinate the young, partly in order to ‘avoid the slowing down of vaccination’. A more reflective scientific ethics advisory committee complained that it has not been given time to make its recommendations, and criticised the ‘hasty’ decision; it judged that the benefits of the vaccine to adolescents were ‘very limited’ and the existing safety data to be too slim to judge its suitability for this age group.
Yet now, this age group is forced to take the vaccine. Sports clubs must check the health passes of 12- and 13-year olds before they are allowed to practice their designated sport. They are given a choice between vaccination or resigning their hobby, between vaccination or never going to a restaurant or the swimming pool. They are forced to accept a medical procedure that is unlikely to benefit them and could cause them harm.
A state that is this cavalier about the health and welfare of its young is one that is sacrificing its future for the political imperatives of the present. The focusing on the young could even be a perverse form of state socialisation, incorporating the young into Macron’s project of ‘exceptional mobilisation’ (which may explain why the pass sanitaire was first applied in nightclubs, long before it was applied in retirement homes or hospitals). Macron has announced his intention to extend vaccines to the under-12s as soon as his scientists give him the green light, which judging by their general helpfulness in this regard may not be long.
There is also a project of state disciplining of public sector employees, with a direct vaccination mandate for 2.7 million ‘carers’, who were ordered to receive at least one dose by 15 September or lose their jobs, and the second dose by 15 October.
This amounts to a perverse act of self-sabotage of the health service – a blind and wilful disorganisation – which has little or no effect on covid transmission and will do much to limit the quality of care. 13% of ambulance staff do not want to be vaccinated, while doctors who do not want to be vaccinated are closing their doors.
This includes a doctor of 30 years, who said she had anti-bodies from a previous episode of covid and that it was against medical practice to vaccinate someone who had antibodies from a previous infection. The non-recognition of natural immunity – which is stronger than that conferred by vaccination – shows that this is not about her personal health status, but about her compliance with a state imposition. Tellingly, a local politician said that her refusal to be vaccinated was ‘political act’, and that she had a ‘political position because she is a territorial representative’ – reducing her status from medical professional to apparatchik. The doctor said in response, ‘the state wants to impose it upon me, but I say to the state, it’s not you who practices medicine, it’s me’.
The closing of her surgery leaves 1500 people without a doctor, a scene that is repeated in several surgeries across France. A mother with an autistic child told me that she was about to lose her son’s local autism expert, while hospital staff in Pau (south-west France) who did not want to comply with the vaccine mandate burned their diplomas and uniforms as they resigned from the profession they had practiced for many years, saying ‘these diplomas are not worth anything anymore’.
Ambulance staff in Strasbourg lined up in a ceremony of dismissal, taking off their helmets and walking away from their frontline roles. Outside Marseilles hospital, female healthcare workers were manhandled by riot police. Such is the political impetus behind vaccination that the French state sends military police to attack the nurses who stood at covid patients’ bedsides.
Scientists who do not fit with the 100% vaccination view are sidelined or retired, including Didier Raoult, one of the world authorities on infectious disease, who is being pushed out of his post leading research and treatment of covid patients at Marseilles University Hospital. He had voiced unorthodox opinions on the claimed effectiveness of current vaccines and the wisdom of mass vaccination of the young. It is perverse in the extreme that France’s primary infectious disease expert is being pushed into retirement in the middle of a pandemic, because his views – developed through his treatment of covid patients and study of the epidemiological data – do not fit with the ‘institutional message’.
Even the police are being pressured, with one former police captain objecting to obligatory vaccination for police officers and calling Macron an ‘enemy of the French people‘. The head of a policing union was summoned by police authorities for his opposition to the pass sanitaire, which he called ‘liberticide’, and said that the police have ‘better things to do than to control the vaccine passports of people who want to drink a coffee at a pavement cafe’.
It is ironic and tragic that vaccination – a measure carried out for the benefits of the recipient and society at large – is being transformed into a question of submission of people to state authority, and the extension of state control throughout social life. This corrupts the rational public health use of vaccines, just as surely as it strangles civic freedoms and liberties.