Bonfire of the Daddy State
Why neoliberalism can't solve its' own pandemic problem
As a member of the Canadian public, I was surprised recently to learn that I am “outraged” by unvaccinated citizens and the impact they are having on healthcare systems across the country.
In a piece posted by the CBC, writer Evan Dyer puts forth the simplistic framing of two diametrically-opposed forces within the public body.
Vaccinated majorities in wealthy western countries are growing increasingly impatient with a science-denying minority being blamed for prolonging the pandemic and stretching critical care resources to the breaking point.
Before continuing, I’d like to take a moment to state that I personally am not angered by the unvaccinated. I am pro-vaccine. I am pro-healthcare-for-all. But as the pandemic continues to play out, I don’t have the energy to be outraged toward those who have chosen to avoid the Covid-19 vaccines. I used up all of my outrage in the preceding two years of unmitigated institutional failure.
I have no doubt that there have been feelings of outrage from those who have suffered, and experienced loss, as a result of healthcare system overload. I do not diminish those realities whatsoever. And as we seek to understand the particulars of the unvaccinated vs. vaccinated debate, we must take a look at all of the facts.
The CBC article mainly focuses on bioethics, the concept that all patients deserve the same level of care regardless of previous behaviours that may have resulted in negative outcomes. Heavily quoted is Udo Schuklenk, Ontario Research Chair in bioethics at Queens University and co-editor of the journal Bioethics, who references a recent study showing that members of the public - who presumably have no medical experience or ethics training - are in favour of withholding care from unvaccinated individuals:
The results reveal an ingroup bias, as vaccinated individuals preferred to allocate more resources to the vaccinated than to the unvaccinated. Participants also favored admitting a heart attack patient rather than a COVID-19 patient with the same likelihood of benefiting from ICU admission, indicating a preference for maintaining regular ICU services rather than treating those with severe COVID-19.
Schuklenk draws on this preprint research gathering public opinion to make some profound leaps:
”[…] When you talk to the people that actually finance these health care systems — the citizens, the people — overwhelmingly, they tell you that you should discriminate against people that are unvaccinated.
"That raises really interesting questions about democracy. It may be that the doctors are the gatekeepers, but the truth is that we pay the bills. So if the vast majority of people in the country think that should happen, should that have an impact?”
The concept of the general public having a say over who lives and who dies within the healthcare system by virtue of the ability to judge individuals based on past actions, simply because “we pay the bills” is suitably monstrous on its’ own. That it is being given credence by someone in the bioethics field, in a major media publication, is concerning on an entirely different level.
But why are we having this conversation now?
These arguments arise at a very convenient time for governments eager to push past the pandemic and get back to what is their core functionality: fostering favourable conditions for economic growth. The people who have taken the pandemic response into the political sphere are never going to be able to address the crisis appropriately when the competing interests who command their attention, largely establishment and business entities, continue to be given priority in policy decisions.
After nearly two years of stark revelations as to the fragile state of the healthcare system, mass deaths in long-term care homes, and questionable conditions in schools across the country, someone must be to blame for the suffering that the population has endured. And the unvaccinated are a very easy target.
In New Brunswick, a recent Twitter flare-up highlighted how the unvaccinated are being weaponized by politicians in this latest effort to deflect criticism of government inaction. Dominic Cardy, the current Minister of Education and self-described “radical centrist,” lambasted the local police force when it posted a statement that it would take a “measured approach” regarding a planned anti-vax rally.
The post was a lightning rod, with some coming to the defense of the Minister and offering praise for his stance, while others were critical of his apparent attempt to proactively criminalize rally participants.
This particular controversy is not without precedent. Anti-vaccination protestors have harassed politicians and health officials at their offices & personal residences, intimidated frontline healthcare workers, and agitators have brigaded multiple social media accounts with threatening messages.
With no concrete solution to ease tensions or bridge the divide between the unvaccinated and the majority population, the political class has largely come down on the side of punitive measures, proposing fines, limiting unvaccinated individuals access, criminalization, and generally making unvaccinated life so unappealing that it motivates people toward getting inoculated (in theory).
This is in addition to the growing calls for increased policing around politicians and other officials, and for a crackdown on speech in social media spaces - initiatives that could have a further chilling effect on democratic participation by citizens of all political leanings.
So, when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. We’ve entered a new phase of government response which I’m calling “The Daddy State.” And Dad is getting fed up.
Police forces, for their part, have navigated this entire situation very carefully - they are no doubt very motivated to avoid any further negative attention - by choosing to passively observe protests and gather surveillance, utilizing the latest technology such as drones and body cameras. Of course, they might just be capturing footage of their own, as many forces have refused to mandate vaccination for their members.
We seem to have completely ignored the examples of those trying to hear the concerns of the unvaccinated face-to-face and succeeding in convincing them through healthy dialogue. We’ve left the idea of developing national outreach programs based on the advice of psychological experts who have studied hesitancy and extremism completely unexplored. That we are painting every unvaccinated person with the same brush is only worsening the divide between us and those who have legitimate grievances.
With that said, it should be obvious by now that mass vaccination is an effective strategy to lessen the impact of the pandemic. The risk of medical complication from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine remains extremely low - you are far more likely to be hit by a car in broad daylight - and most of the misinformation regarding vaccines has been disseminated by people with clear bad-faith or profit motivations.
While not every unvaccinated individual is a conspiracy-minded “freedom fighter” who views their plight as analogous to Jewish extermination at the hands of the Nazis, the longer we treat this group as a monolith and engage in a proxy war of attrition instead of figuring out how to assuage fear, the more prolonged and scarring the pandemic will be for everyone.
If our government leaders were such excellent communicators, such diplomatic, intelligent and levelheaded negotiators, where is their will to showcase these skills? The truth is, as nothing more than middle-managers for global capital flows, they have none, and now that their hand has been crudely exposed, they need a scapegoat. Fast.
Where does all of this leave us?
Missing from the articles pitting the vaccinated vs. the unvaccinated is a crucial examination. If we had maintained a truly world-class healthcare system, with the capacity to handle an influx of sick people no matter the type of emergency; if we had done the sensible thing and dedicated the available resources of the nation toward vaccinating the global population; if we had chosen to act in concert with others on the world stage who asked us for help instead of selfishly hoarding vaccine supply and defending private companies’ intellectual property rights to vaccines, the political & media class would not be foisting this discussion about who deserves lifesaving care onto the Canadian public.
The successive governments, think-tanks and media pundits who have entrenched neoliberal ideology with regard to the individual having sole responsiblity for their own wellbeing, and who have seen this decades-long calculated erosion of collective thinking boomerang back into them in the form of the unvaccinated are facing a crisis of their own making. And they want you to carry the moral burden of deciding what comes next.