Is there any longer any genuine public health response to the pandemic? Every supposed public health technique – tests, masks, and now vaccines – has changed in meaning, and is now pursued primarily as a symbol of bureaucratic compliance.
Masks were spurned at the start of the pandemic – they became de rigeur only when they assumed the meaning of compliance with an official standard for conduct, and a willingness to distance oneself from others.
Meanwhile, the British government persists in testing all secondary children twice a week, regardless of the questionable usefulness of mass asymptomatic testing in general as well as the particular tests being used.
Now, most dramatically, we see the same thing with vaccination – which began as a targeted public health intervention for the most at-risk groups, and has morphed into a de facto qualification for citizenship, with the imposition of increasingly harsh vaccine mandates and passports.
Vaccine mandates are occurring at the very moment when it has become clear that vaccines do not prevent transmission – when highly vaccinated countries such as Israel lead the world for infections, and when vaccinated people are testing positive at similar rates as the unvaccinated.
Yet Italy last week mandated vaccines for all workers, condemning the unvaccinated to joblessness. San Fransisco will require 5-11 year olds to be vaccinated in order to visit public venues such as cinemas or restaurants. France has changed its vaccine passport regime to require a third dose from certain groups, a step already taken by Israel for whom two doses now counts as ‘unvaccinated’.
It is very possible that this forced vaccination of younger age groups will yield more injuries and deaths than they would have suffered at the hands of covid. The logic here is not medical but political.
The vaccine passport becomes the mandate for citizenship: it is a safe citizen card, a sign that someone is safe to interact with others. In Ontario, public health officials recommended excluding unvaccinated family members from Thanskgiving gatherings, or requiring them to have tests and wear masks.
The belief is that, without measures such as vaccine passports, society cannot function, that it is only because of these controls that cafes can stay open and schools can receive their students. In Lithuania (which requires a vaccine passport for people to go to any public facility aside from small grocery stores and pharmacies) the vaccine pass is called the ‘opportunity pass’. In other countries, it is the ‘green pass’. This is the pass that gives freedom, that gives opportunity, that allows life to go ahead.
Under coronavirus, the state becomes an industry producing bureaucratic controls, which are given the status of a prophylaxis. These are its public service, the thing it does to protect public health and wellbeing. These restrictions mediate life and we relate to others only through them. We can approach other people only when wearing a mask, go to school only after being tested, go to a cafe only after swiping our QR code.
Vaccines, masks and tests function as bureaucratic insignia, a talisman of safety, without which we cannot participate in civic life; without which, it is believed, that life could not be possible.
When covid cases rise there must be a concomitant increase in bureaucratic controls. The French government claims that it would dearly love to remove the vaccine passport, but it cannot, because covid cases are too high and it is simply not possible. No doubt when covid cases rise further over the winter then it will introduce further controls. There is a ceaseless choreography of rules, which are imposed, amended, lifted then reimposed.
Of course, all this is a bureaucratic mythology. If vaccine passports were removed tomorrow, nothing would happen. The belief that they allow society to function is like the Aztec belief that their rituals were essential to allow the sun to come up every morning.
It is the political meaning of vaccination that explains the extreme stigmatisation of the unvaccinated, who are described in Italy as rats, subhuman, criminals, who should be ‘purged’. Lithuanian politicians said that they ‘at war’ and must ‘fight the virus that is the anti-vaxxers‘. The true danger posed by the unvaccinated is not a medical one but a danger of their being outside the system, of having resisted the imperative of bureaucratic compliance. States become obsessed with getting to that last 10% or 20% of people who do not want to be vaccinated. These 10% niggle. They seem to be the problem at the root of everything; they are the cause of the persistence of the pandemic, the cause of rising cases.
There is a separate legal status for the unvaccinated, who are excluded from all or part of public life. If admitted, they are subject to different legal rules or separation from the vaccinated. This segregation will be evident in the Hamburg Christmas market, where a fence will divide the unvaccinated from the vaccinated. In one area, vaccinated citizens can eat, drink mulled wine and mingle without masks; in another area, unvaccinated citizens can shop but must wear a mask and socially distance, and are not allowed to consume food or drink.
It is telling that natural immunity is often not recognised by vaccine mandates. What is at stake is not the medical protection itself, but the meaning of vaccination as a bureaucratic procedure undergone. The immunity developed naturally may be more potent in medical terms, but it is worthless as political value, and so it is either not recognised at all by vaccine passports or grudgingly admitted for a limited period and then eclipsed.
Where the QR code state is heading is probably not conscious, but events point towards the abolition of civil society and spontaneity, and people’s participation and relation only through bureaucratic mechanisms, which will be continually changing in standards and requirements. One day the standard is two doses, then three; tomorrow it may be something else. What is certain is that the requirements will not stay still; there will be a continual disruption of life and the imposition of new requirements for civic participation.
It may seem that those with vaccine passports have retained their freedoms, since they are able to sit in cafes. In fact, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes, it is the registered bearers of the green pass who are less free, since they are the swiped and monitored; they have joined the QR code civic realm on the terms of the state.
With the vaccine passport, cafes in France are not the same. There is a bad feel about them; the QR code signs on the tables give them the stench of collaboration.
By contrast, the weekly demonstrations against the vaccine passport have become informal societies, with people having picnics and drinking in the street, playing music and dancing. Only here, in clandestine sociality, is there an element of genuine freedom – and a memory of what social life should look like, and what should be defended in the battle ahead.