- - Saturday, January 8, 2022

I have been a federal employee for over 20 years. It has been a wonderful and rewarding career. Recently, the Biden administration issued an executive order instructing me to prove that I have received the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of my continued employment.

I would prefer not to.

It is self-evident that vaccination against COVID-19 has failed to effectively suppress its dissemination. One has only to note the high rates of infection observed in some of the most vaccinated places on Earth to see that this is the case. More recently, we have seen that infection due to the omicron variant is almost entirely unattenuated by vaccination. There is no reason to believe that omicron will be the last variant of concern we have to contend with.

It seems, then, that vaccinating the entire population is unlikely to stop the spread of this disease. This observation, together with the resilience of the virus and the vast reservoir of available hosts, makes it increasingly evident that COVID-19 is here to stay. This is not a fringe opinion. It is, in fact, the view of many infectious disease experts worldwide, whether they wish to publicize it or not.

This means, of course, that talk of “protecting” the workforce is patronizing and absurd. The government cannot protect us from COVID-19. No one can. We all know this by now. Or at least we should.

We would do better to abandon the quixotic fantasy of conquering COVID-19 and focus instead on targeted mitigation and societal adaptation. But this would require rational leadership.  

I am not holding my breath. 

Rather, the futile, prevention-at-all-costs paradigm is likely to continue to inform our national policy.  

Even so, how does one justify vaccine mandates? I am not questioning the utility of the vaccines, just the use of state-sanctioned extortion to compel their acceptance.    

We know the vaccines cannot contain the virus. Why are we mandating them? The vaccines are free. They are everywhere. Anyone who wants them can get them. Why is that not enough?

Both public and private institutions have jumped on the mandate bandwagon, sometimes with obscene relish. They tout the efficacy of the mandates at increasing compliance as if that somehow provides ethical sanction for their action. The history of justifying compulsion merely by the rate of capitulation among the compelled is as ugly as it is long.

Those who refuse to comply face termination from their jobs. In what is sure to be a bitterly ironic footnote when the history of this monomaniacal fever-dream is written, some of the first to be fired have been those who have made the greatest sacrifices during the height of the pandemic — the employees of the health care industry.

We are told that these purges are necessary to protect the health and safety of others. This is myopic idiocy. How are the outcomes of hospital, nursing home and hospice patients improved by depriving them of even one of the few remarkable people who can render these services with competence, professionalism and grace?

I surmise that politics were the primary impetus for implementing the federal mandates. The president needed to look like a strong leader, to look as if he was doing something muscular about COVID-19. His constituency wanted action, and he gave it to them. It saddens me that so many of my fellow citizens are so frightened by COVID-19 or so embittered at the recalcitrance of the unvaccinated that they would throw away their liberties with both hands, in exchange for the illusory security of universal vaccine compliance or the schadenfreude of seeing the unvaccinated suffer. 

Individual rights have always been an impediment to the efficient exercise of bureaucratic power. If the people do not resist the incremental erosions of their inviolability, they are returned, if at all, as conditional privileges. Any such boundary, once crossed, is never truly reestablished.

I am grateful for the vaccines. They have been shown to mitigate severe disease and death and have doubtless saved many lives. I am glad that I live in a country where they are readily available for anyone who wants them.   

However, the best evidence suggests that they do not sufficiently reduce the infection rate to suppress the virus. This means that we cannot vaccinate our way out of this. COVID-19 is not going away. Most likely, it will gradually transition to an endemic disease. We must learn to live with it.

And yet, the vaccine mandates persist.  

Mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 is at best a misguided effort at benevolent paternalism and, at worst, a cynical manifestation of the will to power.  

Either way, I’m keeping my vaccine choice to myself.  

I hope I don’t get fired. But if I do, then so be it.

• Gary Brown is an employee with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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