For everyone The social contract

There’s a local shop I’ve been going to forever. When I discovered recently that the owners are opposed to COVID vaccination, I began to think about the threads that hold society together, and the risk imposed on customers. Shouldn’t people be aware of the vendors’ stance when deciding where they shop? Weren’t they obliged to provide a safe shopping environment? I wondered where the balance lay between their rights and mine.

Curious what others thought, I canvassed social media. A few friends supported them heatedly: vaccination was their decision. Others believed they were knowingly putting customers at risk. As one person put it: “Would you get in a car with a drunken driver?” 

Most of us have a sense of the social contract – the agreement between the individual and the state about the rights and obligations of each. We willingly give up some rights for the greater good. In a democracy, the state doesn’t impose demands that unreasonably curtail freedoms. Some rules we (mostly) agree to abide by are common sense, like wearing clothes. Others, like those related to driving, save lives or, as with taxes, ensure that society functions. 

Strange to think that some of the measures we now accept as normal were once seen as draconian. Compulsory seatbelt wearing was bitterly opposed when first introduced, but governments recognised the social and economic cost of death and injury from road accidents. 

When moving between countries, we comply with vaccination requirements, yet mandating vaccination in workplaces is contentious. Few of us want to live in a society in which people were vaccinated against their will – and, of course, we must protect the rights of those who can’t for genuine health reasons. Vaccination remains a choice. But does that choice give you the right to put others, including those you work with, at risk?

Has tribalism replaced the idea of the common good?

The backdrop is the forgotten lessons of history. Visiting old graveyards is a powerful reminder of the success of modern medicine. So many infants, so many women of childbearing age… I recall a graveyard in the south of France thick with people who died in their twenties (a tuberculosis sanatorium town). Early last century, 10% of children died before their first birthday, many from diseases now controlled with vaccinations. Perhaps we have forgotten our mortality, along with our interdependence.

My mother recently rang to find out if my children were vaccinated. She told me about Alfie Greenfield, a sparky little boy she went to school with when she was five. “I sat next to him on a Friday, and on Monday I found out he’d died of polio the day before. It took just two days.” The terror of disease and death haunted people then. “We all got the vaccine the minute we could,” she said.

So, what does society do when people turn away from the social contract? Considering and balancing the rights of individuals and the state is key, according to Ro Allen, Victorian Human Rights Commissioner. Are vaccine mandates for teachers, healthcare, hospitality workers and others discriminatory, or do they help ensure the safety of others, especially the most vulnerable? After all, employers have a legal responsibility to mitigate hazards and provide a safe workplace.

Tribalism has, to an extent, replaced the idea of the common good. We all have a right to our own views, but living in a community means managing the hostility that can arise when we have differences of opinion, and a willingness to recognise the consequences of our choices.

Many of us have been trying to discuss these issues with friends and family members without destroying relationships. I suspect this will continue to be a challenge as we enter a complex future.

But, in moving forward, we should not forget the past. I think of Alfie Greenfield, who didn’t have a choice. We do, though. We can choose to take care of each other.

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