Flat White

Immunity passports and the the Leviathan of public health despotism

18 February 2021

4:00 AM

18 February 2021

4:00 AM

In his recent book Virus e Leviatano, the veteran Italian journalist Aldo Maria Valli analyses how coronavirus has led to a form of health despotism replacing the rule of law. He pointedly employs the image of the leviathan, the Biblical sea monster, which symbolises a powerful and destructive enemy. 

Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 treatise Leviathanadopted this image to argue for an all-powerful state, or ‘sovereign’. In Part II of his workCommonwealth — Hobbes argued: 

The commonwealth is instituted when all agree in the following manner: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner.

Hobbes then outlines how the sovereign has twelve principal rights, explicitly rejecting the doctrine of the separation of powers. Number 6 states: 

Because the purpose of the commonwealth is peace, and the sovereign has the right to do whatever he thinks necessary for the preserving of peace and security and prevention of discord. Therefore, the sovereign may judge what opinions and doctrines are averse, who shall be allowed to speak to multitudes, and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they are published.

Some 370 years later, Hobbes’s wish may well have become reality. 

Valli argues that health despotism has led to the state judging what opinions and doctrines are averse, who shall be allowed to speak and who shall examine what is published. Medicine has become politics and politics has become medicine. 

He refers to the “task forces” that have been established against “Covid fake news and misinformation”. Witness the Craig Kelly pile-on recently. Citizens are no longer able to assess an issue independently and make up their own minds.  

Which brings me to the matter of vaccine ‘passports’. I have no problem with vaccines per se. However, I do not believe in coercion either. The nature of vaccine ‘passports’ give rise to serious ethical concerns which go to the heart of three fundamental freedoms we cherish but are being threatened as never before: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. 

Ever since the Prime Minister retreated on his initial wish to make any coronavirus vaccine ‘as mandatory as possible’Health Minister Greg Hunt has repeated on several occasions that the vaccine will be ‘entirely voluntaryThereforesuggestions that the vaccine will be a condition of doing certain things, such as workinggoing to a restaurant or plane travel, are concerning. Restrictions on movement via vaccine ‘passports’ evoke images of Soviet-style measures, where people must produce their ‘papers’ or risk detentionIndeed, this has already happened during lockdowns. 

Since we now have an increased understanding of coronavirus, it is evident that it is far less dangerous than the Spanish fluIt has an infection fatality rate of less than 0.1% for people under 70. Therefore, justifications in barring people from working, going about their lawful duties, or enjoying a meal with family and friends, especially if they have no pre-existing conditions, or are not in a vulnerable category, would be difficult to make. I also understand it has been recommended that pregnant women, or those wishing to fall pregnant, not take the vaccine. 

On 27 January the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a Resolution entitled: COVID-19 vaccines: ethical, legal and practical considerations. It states that successful deployment and uptake of vaccines will be crucial for them to be effective. However, the Resolution also cautions that: “Even rapidly deployed, safe and effective vaccines are not an immediate panacea.” Such a statement recalls that of the WHO’s chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, regarding coronavirus vaccine efficacy: “I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on.” 

The Resolution affirms: 

  • vaccination is NOT mandatory;
  • no one must be politically, socially, or otherwise pressured to get themselves vaccinated, if they do not wish to do so;
  • no one must be discriminated against for not having been vaccinated, due to possible health risks or not wanting to be vaccinated.

Monash University Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences Professor Colin Pouton, and the President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Korshid, have cautioned against making any coronavirus vaccine compulsory or tying it to travel. 

Additionally, ethical concerns have been raised in relation to coronavirus vaccines, since they have either been derived from the cell lines of an electively aborted foetus (in the case of the Government’s vaccine of choice, AstraZeneca), or laboratory testing of them has been conducted utilising such cell lines.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, along with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, and the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Archbishop Makarios, wrote of such concerns last August. Following this, the Prime Minister declared that, while he would take the coronavirus vaccine, he would be sensitive to people’s ethical concerns. 

Mr Morrison said at the time “these are personal judgements that people make and you’ve got to always be respectful of other people’s views.” 

Thhe Prime Minister should reassure those whose conscience is troubled and ensure they are not pressured to take the vaccine, in line with articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has signed and ratified. 

Tony Abbott noted in The Australian on Boxing Day that the National Pandemic Plan’s “ethical framework” includes “ensuring that the rights of the individual are upheld as much as possible” and “that measures taken are proportional to the threat”. Vaccine ‘passports’ would seem directly contradictory to these aims, and discriminatory. 

We should all remember what Kate Andrews wrote in the World section of these pages less than a fortnight ago: 

[W]hat happens when freedoms become directly linked to a person’s immunity status? Are the people who can’t get the vaccine yet for medical reasons simply left behind? If the travel industry is asking to see your immunity passport, what is to stop the hospitality industry from wanting to be able to do the same?

And what of the optics? Young people — who statistically are very unlikely to die from the virus — have been living under Covid-19 restrictions for nearly a year now, to protect people far more vulnerable than themselves. There would perhaps be no greater example of intergenerational unfairness if the elderly start jet-setting while the youngest and healthiest (and last on the vaccine priority list) watch on.

The government will struggle to ‘cry freedom’ as restrictions lift, if those freedoms still come with conditions attached.

Dr Rocco Loiacono is Senior Lecturer at Curtin University Law School.

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