Last Monday night, President Emmanuel Macron announced a vaccine certificate or negative PCR test would soon be required to travel domestically and enter many public spaces in France, including bars, restaurants, clubs and cultural events. In the week that followed, the online booking platform Doctolib recorded 3.8 million new appointments for a first jab. It had barely reached a million weekly appointments since early June. Thrice last week, France pulverized previous records with more than 800,000 daily jabs.
I wish I could say that the president's words about personal responsibility and public spirit cut through. The truth is more sobering: Disrupting people's entertainment options did what calling on civic-mindedness and solidarity could not. It got them to a needle.
Let's set aside those who hold a sincere if misguided fear of the vaccine or oppose its requirement. That's a whole other column. For millions, putting off vaccination was not principled; opposition vanished in the face of minor discomfort. Going ahead with it is not a matter of conscience, but convenience.
I have to dig deep to find compassion for those who have revealed the shallowness of their motives. It'd be easier if three-quarters of humanity weren't helplessly begging for the vaccine they disdain. But I do. I know a few and I even love a couple. It makes stereotypes and judgement harder to hold.
"I'm just one of one," a friend said. I was gently prodding, again, for him to get vaccinated. He's a young English man, not a perfect one but a good one, the kind of friend who shows up when you're sad and calls you out when you're feeling sorry for yourself. But his concern ends where his circle does. He never felt much of a connection between individual actions and collective outcome. So he doesn't get vaccinated and he doesn't vote.
There are two impulses behind this divorce from any sense of duty to the collective. One is individualism and consumerism pushed to the extreme. "What's in it for me?" it demands. The other is a neutering of the citizen, a powerlessness increasingly felt to influence the course of history. "Why bother?" it laments. The individual is everything. The individual is nothing. Either way, the collective loses out.
In this we have powerful models. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak were pinged as contact cases, their first instinct was to find a way to evade self-isolation rules. Personal comfort over public solidarity, from our top leaders no less. Again, in abolishing all precautions today amid rising cases, British ministers demonstrate that their personal political destinies take precedence over the country's interest – or the world's.
It travels down. Billionaires take themselves to space with the money they saved on taxes. Hooligans wave the flag for the national team while destroying the nation's public goods. Even global vaccine policy is largely in the hands of an unelected man whose fortune rests on the notion that ideas should be privatized. He opposed the lifting of intellectual property on covid vaccines because it collides with his worldview. The software that runs global public health policy is private self-interest. Why then should we expect people to get jabbed for the common good?
Yet, what better than vaccination demonstrates that we are but a fraction of a collective organism called society? Getting jabbed is not putting up an individual shield. It is taking our place in the chain we form together around the most vulnerable in our communities. Instead of making that case, public information campaigns promise us we'll be able to make out again. Take a train. See grandma. They have us pegged.
I'll concede it's more immediately effective and we need that. But it also sells us short. I've often worried about those who pledge allegiance to a nation without feeling kinship with the rest of humanity. Let's not now give up on feeling any allegiance at all.
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