On Vaccine Passports and the Interpretation of Reality
Recently I found myself in a dust-up with some friends and acquaintances. The subject was vaccine passports. Although mild and civil throughout, this dust-up, conducted over email, nevertheless robbed me of sleep. More on my sleep loss in the conclusion.
The dust-up was sparked by my interpretation of the latest of Dr. Leana Wen’s Washington Post columns. In this column she continues to make the case for vaccine passports. Her effort here seems to be to whitewash these passports, and to this end she puts three different cans of wash to work.
First, she wants people to stop calling these documents “vaccine passports,” because, says she, “[t]he term is inflammatory and divisive.” Yet it’s unclear if Wen proposes another name. The closest she comes to doing so occurs in the final paragraph of her column where she writes that “we should define what it is that we need to move toward normalcy: a covid-19 health screen that enables people to associate with one another free from pandemic restrictions.” If her proposed alternative name is this 16-word mouthful, count me as skeptical that it’ll catch on. If, however, this mouthful isn’t her proposed name, then she proposes none.
The likely reason Wen stumbles in coming up with an alternative name is that any such workable alternative would either be too obviously Orwellian (“Freedom Passes”) or, being descriptive, suffer the same problem as does “vaccine passports.” “Medical passports,” “Documentations of Good Health,” “Free-of-the-pathogen-du-jour certifications.” Try coming up with a workable, descriptive, and non-Orwellian name for vaccine passports that would not be inflammatory and divisive. There is none.
The reason that no such name exists is that what inflames and divides is not the document’s name but its nature. Although I think that an even more accurate name is “medical passports,” the name “vaccine passports” is sufficiently descriptive. It reveals that such documents will be required to gain physical entry into restaurants, theaters, school buildings, gyms, airports, hotels, and other places that, until now, the public could enter without having to show proof of good health. Because we Americans are not yet accustomed to such a requirement, these documents will be controversial regardless of what they’re called.
Wen splashes her second can of whitewash all over the following passage:
Many public and private institutions already ask people to complete a pre-arrival questionnaire that screens for symptoms of covid-19. Some venues check temperatures or even administer a rapid coronavirus test before entry. Requesting proof of vaccination would be another such health screen. If questionnaires or tests aren’t seen as constraints on individual liberties, showing vaccine status should not be, either.
Observe her move. She begins by treating compliance with novel emergency measures adopted within the past year, and in an environment of extreme hysteria, as now being normal and excellent parts of everyday life. She then insists that the additional requirement of “showing vaccine status” is simply another such acceptable requirement and, thus, no big deal. It’s as if her goal is to validate the fears of those who warn of slippery slopes.
It Won’t Be Voluntary
But by far Wen’s most troubling can of whitewash is her third, which is her slipperiness on the role that she believes government should play in pushing vaccine passports.
A reader unfamiliar with Wen’s history of promoting vaccine passports can be forgiven for interpreting her latest column as proposing nothing more than that Americans welcome the voluntary adoption of such passports by the likes of businesses, schools, and churches. In this column, she never explicitly writes that such passports should be imposed by the state. (Nor, by the way, does she express opposition to state-mandated use of such passports.) Indeed, she even offers real-world examples in which experiments with passport use “isn’t a government-imposed requirement but a voluntary action facilitated by the private sector.”
Well, yes. No government in the U.S. has yet imposed a vaccine-passport requirement on private entities, and so any current “exploring” (her word) of the use of such documents is necessarily now not formally “government-imposed.”
Yet Wen is on record as clearly calling for government action to impose vaccine-passport requirements. Here’s what she told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on March 10th:
But I think that there are many more people, millions of people who, for whatever reason, have concerns about the vaccine, who just don’t know what’s in it for them. And we need to make it clear to them that the vaccine is the ticket back to pre-Pandemic life. And the window to do that is really narrowing.
I mean, you were mentioning, Chris, about how all these states are reopening. They are reopening at a 100 percent [sic]. And we have a very narrow window to tie reopening policy to vaccination status. Because otherwise, if everything is reopened, then what’s the carrot going to be? How are we going to incentivize people to actually get the vaccine?
So that’s why I think the CDC and the Biden Administration needs to come out a lot bolder and say, “If you’re vaccinated, you can do all these things. Here are all these freedoms that you have,” because otherwise, people are going to go out and enjoy these freedoms anyway.
And here’s Wen two days earlier, in the Washington Post, in a column titled “The CDC is missing a critical opportunity to get Americans vaccinated:”
As more states lift restrictions, the Biden administration has a narrow window to tie reopening policy to vaccination. It can suggest to states, for example, that businesses do not need capacity limits for fully vaccinated people, but if businesses are not checking vaccination status, they should still limit capacity indoors. Interstate and international travel should require pre-travel testing and post-travel quarantine, which would be waived for people with proof of vaccination. Yes, there’s a risk that those vaccinated could still be low-level carriers of the coronavirus. That risk is offset by the greater risk of waiting: At some point soon, everything will be fully reopened anyway, and there will be no carrot left to offer.
To have our best chance of achieving herd immunity and ending the pandemic once and for all, vaccines should be presented as the ticket back to pre-pandemic life. Time is running out for the CDC and the Biden administration to embrace this approach.
Despite giving poorly informed readers of her most-recent column, which appeared on April 7th, the option of interpreting her as merely calling for the voluntary use of vaccine passports, Wen’s history of endorsing these documents makes clear that she believes that government, at the very least, should punish businesses and other institutions that do not ‘voluntarily’ adopt them.
Leana Wen is no government official. (Let us give thanks for even tiny blessings.) But she’s a columnist for one of the nation’s premier newspapers, and she’s got a gig on CNN. Her voice is prominent. Anyone in the U.S. who cherishes liberty and the open society ought to pay close attention to what Wen and other prominent supporters of vaccine passports say and write about the matter. It’s one thing to endorse only the voluntary adoption of such passports. (That topic is the one for my next column – in which, by the way, I’ll express both a hope that such adoption never occurs, and my agreement with Dan Mitchell that the state should never prevent private parties from using such documents.)
It’s quite a different thing to propose that government either impose such requirements directly or to penalize private parties who do not ‘voluntarily’ adopt them. Yet it’s an even worse thing to falsely portray endorsements of government action on this front as endorsements only of genuinely voluntary adoption.
So why did my little dust-up with some friends and acquaintances cause me to lose sleep? The cause was the insistence by some acquaintances that nowhere does Leana Wen call on government to compel in any way the use of vaccine passports. Even after I shared Wen’s above-quoted remarks from CNN and her March 8th column, two respected acquaintances wrote back to tell me that they cannot for the life of them see how I can possibly interpret Wen as calling for government to play any role whatsoever in requiring the use of vaccine passports.
I’m certain that my acquaintances are sincere. In their eyes, Wen truly says and writes nothing that suggests that she wishes the government in any way, directly or indirectly, to mandate the use of such passports.
So I re-read the said passages. I re-re-read them. I re-re-re-read them. For the life of me, I cannot possibly interpret Wen as not calling for government to effectively mandate the use of vaccine passports. And also for the life of me I cannot understand how anyone can read these passages and not see what I see in them.
Thus I lost sleep. I lay awake wondering if I’m losing my grip on reality. I asked myself if my priors are so strong that they blind me to what should be obvious, and create in my mind mirages that, to a less-biased brain, are obviously of things unreal.
Even if I were assured beyond doubt that my interpretation of reality is the ‘right’ one, sleep remains elusive. After all, if my reading of today’s world is at all accurate, then a distressingly large number of other people are delusional. Where I see Covid as posing to humanity no categorically different threat than is posed by many other pathogens, other people do see a categorically different threat. Where I see the reaction to Covid as being disproportionate to Covid’s risks by many orders of magnitude, other people see the reaction as appropriate, or even in some cases inadequate. Where I see the combination of craziness and danger of each person treating other persons as emitters of lethal poisons, other people see the good sense and prudence of each person avoiding death.
Where I see media personalities and government officials working hard to sensationalize and exaggerate Covid’s dangers, other people see trustworthy and intrepid reporting of, and dedication to, “the facts” and “the science.” Where I see many of these same media personalities and government officials doing and saying things that clearly reveal their wish to keep Covid hysteria high and going for as long as possible, other people see nothing of the sort.
Where I see an utterly unjustified and permanent expansion of government power to superintend and obstruct private behaviors in ways that a mere 14 months ago was unthinkable, other people see government responding humanely to society’s needs, and government’s willingness to abandon those powers when this pandemic is past.
Where I see liberal civilization being brutally transformed by a Covidocracy into what David Hart calls a “hygiene socialist” society, other people see civilization being compassionately reset into a safer and more humane arrangement in which, presumably, no one ever again will be killed or even discomforted by pathogens.
Where other people see a dream, I see a nightmare.
This article was published on April 13, 2021 and reproduced with permission AIER, American Institute for Economic Research.
The author is the former Department Chairman of Economics at George Mason University.
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