America's anti-vaccine brigade plays right into Biden's hands

The US President has mandated vaccines for federal workers. Predictably, opposition is aplenty

An anti-vaccination protester holds a sign and a flag as he takes part in a rally against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, in Santa Monica, California, on August 29. AFP)
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Fascism has arrived in the US, the political right is thundering. According to them, there is ”tyranny” and “oppression” in America, and an unconstitutional “overreach” that smacks of the “Nazis,” as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has claimed, with a grammatically incorrect apostrophe for good measure.

This has been the general reaction of Republicans and conservatives to last week's order by President Joe Biden that will require about 100 million workers in the US to take the Covid-19 vaccine or submit to weekly testing.

Many right-wingers appeared delighted with their new defining grievance, knowing full well that a substantial minority of Americans are hostile to the vaccination because for them the pandemic was politicised from the outset.

Covid-19 struck during Donald Trump’s presidency, and fearing that it could derail his chances of re-election – which it did – he devoted all his energies to dismissing Covid’s virulence and lethality, saying it would all just go away, and promoting unscientific and dangerous cures such as unrelated medicines or even injecting patients with disinfectant.

The intense propaganda during the end of Mr Trump's presidency ensured that millions of Americans are deeply hostile to these life-saving vaccines, and even to nurses and doctors who work to treat the sick. More than 639,000 people in the US have died from Covid-19. Yet opposition to vaccination, mask mandates, and other mitigation efforts is now the greatest unifying article of faith among Republicans. So some conservative commentators were positively gleeful about the supposed wave of outrage that Mr Biden "has unleashed".

But, in fact, this is precisely the fight Mr Biden wants to have at this time. When he says the nation is "losing patience" with the unvaccinated, he speaks for a far bigger pool of voters than angry anti-medicine conservatives.

In the US, approximately 63 per cent of the population is fully protected, and 74 per cent partially, among adult residents. The vaccinated are well aware that the main reason the country is being wracked with some of the world's worst Covid-19 outbreaks and hospitals in many parts of the country are overwhelmed is the 30 per cent who refuse to accept the easily available and free of charge vaccination.

Vaccine mandates aren't new. In 1777, George Washington insisted that all his troops submit to inoculation against smallpox

This refusal places everybody at risk by allowing the virus to thrive, mutate and increasingly infect children under the age of 12 and others who cannot yet be vaccinated. It is also hampering what had been a powerful economic recovery.

And the reasons the unvaccinated minority give for their refusal only anger the vaccinated majority further, typically including "Don't tell me what to do, I don't feel at risk and I don't care about anybody else", or some conspiratorial and frankly irrational fears about the nature and effects of the vaccine.

Mr Biden, speaking on behalf of the vaccinated majority, is telling a key portion of the unvaccinated minority that the government will now use its authority to create safe workplaces by insisting on either vaccines or testing. Much of the country is wondering what took him so long.

In addition, this is an argument Mr Biden needs to have as the US political system cranks back into gear after Labour Day signals the end of the summer lull. Americans are not arguing about Afghanistan, or the economy and inflation, or any other issue on which he could be significantly vulnerable.

Instead Mr Biden is positioning himself as the champion of a rational majority telling a deluded and/or selfishly infantile minority that “we have had enough”. He thereby also puts all the blame for the pandemic surge and economic downturn on unvaccinated holdouts who are largely his political opponents.

And anyway it is almost impossible to get 80-90 per cent of a society to do something just because it is the only reasonable thing to do. Even the most unavoidable and popular wars have required conscription.

So, the political right may think they have been suddenly thrown a badly needed lifeline, but in fact Mr Biden believes, with good reason, they have fallen into a trap he set for them. And there is no doubt he is on solid legal footing.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 gives workers a right to a safe and healthy workplace, which certainly includes interacting with a vaccinated workforce.

The problem will be how the Labour Department intends to enforce the regulations especially with a mere 900 inspectors. But businesses generally comply with such rules voluntarily and, strikingly, many large businesses and business groups have welcomed the new mandate.

In reality, Americans are used to vaccine mandates, which date back to the war of independence when, in 1777, George Washington insisted that all his troops submit to inoculation against smallpox – the first mass inoculation of a military in human history.

Ever since, Americans have been required to have multiple vaccinations to attend school, and often to travel abroad, among many other circumstances. The difference in this case is that Mr Trump and his allies politicised the Covid-19 pandemic from the beginning. Among his adherents, opposition to vaccines and mitigation have become symbols of tribal political identity.

So, when Governor Henry McMaster of South Carolina vows to fight him “to the gates of hell,” and Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi deems the mandate a “terrifying” and an act of “tyrants,” these Republicans are playing directly into Mr Biden's hands.

Predictably, much of the most hyperbolic and enraged pushback has appeared on the Fox News Channel, which has a long history of questioning the vaccines. Mr Biden took much glee in noting that Fox itself has been following strict mitigation policies for all employees, including the mandatory reporting of vaccine status and for unvaccinated employees to be tested, wear masks indoors and maintain social distance – the very policies their programmes condemn as un-American, tyrannical and outrageous.

Mr Biden could have sold his policy somewhat differently, presenting it as a weekly testing mandate with an available vaccination opt-out. But he wants to have the starkest possible fight over Covid-19 vaccines as likely to prove politically powerful. Eventually, it will greatly strengthen the fight against the pandemic and it will be almost impossible to deny him the credit for the likely substantial social and economic benefits.

Those improvements will obviously take some time to manifest. But presumably they will be evident well before next year's midterm congressional elections, in which he still hopes to avoid repeating the pattern of setbacks for a new president’s party and keep pressing his remarkably ambitious agenda.

Published: September 13, 2021, 3:30 PM