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On Booster Shot Boycotts and Participatory Democracy

photograph of lone wooden figurine holding sign

Recently, Daniel Burkett argued here at The Prindle Post that many people in the United States have a good reason to conscientiously abstain from receiving a booster-dose of the COVID-19 vaccine until others around the world have had a fair chance to get their initial shots. As Burkett explains, as is often the case with limited resources, the Global North has received a disproportionately high amount of the various vaccines recently developed to combat the global pandemic; for multiple reasons, ranging from duties of international care to utilitarian calculations of good-maximization to pragmatic concerns about potential virus mutations, Burkett contends that many of us have positive obligations to forgo our third jab. According to Burkett, “By refraining from taking the COVID-19 booster — at least until those in poorer nations have had the opportunity to receive their initial vaccine — we send a clear message to our governments that we will not partake in ill-gotten gains.”

Certainly, Burkett is right to identify the problem of global vaccine disparity for what it is: an injustice born from centuries of preferential treatment and abuse. In many ways, those of us in rich countries harbor obligations to reconsider how our privileged positions affect the citizens of poorer nations. So, I do not aim to disagree here with what I take Burkett’s main point to be: namely, that the COVID-19 vaccine (along with, to be frank, plenty of other things) should be made more readily available to people living outside the borders of the U.S., U.K., and EU.

I just think that a booster shot boycott is not, on its own, sufficient to provoke such a change.

For example, my current home state of Arkansas made headlines last summer when 80,000 doses of its vaccine stock expired before being administered. Despite the vaccine being readily available for months, Arkansas was evidencing one of the lowest state-wide vaccine rates in the country with just barely over a third of the population counting as “fully vaccinated.” According to CDC data, as of November 23rd, Arkansas (along with nine other states) has still not broken the halfway point to full-vaccination status for its nearly-three-million citizens. Despite pleas from the governor, local doctors, and the families of those affected by the disease, many people in Arkansas have simply refused to take advantage of the opportunity to protect themselves and their community from the novel coronavirus that has shaped so much of the last two years of our lives.

So, let’s imagine that someone in Arkansas grows convinced that the global vaccine supply chain is importantly unjust and therefore elects to forgo their booster shot as a form of protest: how might the state’s governor interpret such a choice? Even if large numbers of people join together and do this, without some clear kind of messaging or explanation defending their rationale for the boycott, it seems likely that the governor and other officials will simply believe that low booster-shot rates are additional symptoms of the already-clear problem of vaccine hesitancy in general — not that anyone is, say, protesting Moderna’s business practices. And I think similar interpretations would hold around the country, given the wide-ranging difficulties we’ve seen promoting vaccine uptake over the last few months.

That is to say, in order for a booster shot boycott to be effective at actually helping people in other countries receive the vaccine, it not only needs to be sufficiently large enough so as to attract the attention necessary to provoke action, but it needs to be clearly articulated in terms that will be relevant to the policy-makers who hold the power to affect the desired changes. At present, one key problem for global vaccine distribution involves the legal protections for pharmaceutical intellectual property; without considerable coordinated effort, it’s not clear how anyone’s individual choice to abstain from a third shot will make a difference on whether or not Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson choose to give up potential corporate profits for the sake of global well-being (or, conversely, for governments to force them to do so).

In short, in order for boycotts to be effective, they must operate within a robust sense of community engagement akin to how philosopher John Dewey understood participatory democracy to function in general. According to Dewey, democracies are not simply governments structured via the institution of citizens’ periodic voting, but manifest via the regular interaction of well-informed people sharing ideas, confronting problems, and encouraging each other to work together to develop solutions; as he says in his 1916 book Democracy and Education, “a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” Without explicitly communicating the motivations for the boycott — perhaps by organizing loudly and publicly around the kinds of institutional challenges regarding booster shot limitations levied by WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — it’s unlikely that the potential boycott could substantively contribute to its intentions being actualized precisely because the other agents in our democracy would fail to realize the “mode of living” out of which the action stems.

And this is all bracketing the important question about the long-term efficacy of “full vaccination” status without a later booster: particularly with the still-live threat of breakthrough infections and high rates of unvaccinated individuals in local communities, the wisdom of a booster shot boycott should also be measured against its potential contribution to already-concerning winter forecasts.

In any case, while political activity can take many forms, misinterpretations of one’s political choices is always a risk that political agents face — preparing for and mitigating such possibilities is an important part of political organization. Without doing that kind of collective work, we wouldn’t be “protesting global injustice” by individually boycotting our booster shots; in fact, it’s not clear that we’d be communicating anything at all.

The Bigger Problem with “COVID Conga Lines”

photograph of full subway car with half of the passengers unmasked

On December 9th, days before New York would again order the re-closing of bars and restaurants in an attempt to stem the resurgence of COVID-19 cases seemingly spread by holiday travelers, dozens of members of New York’s Whitestone Republican Club gathered together for a holiday party at a restaurant in Queens; weeks later, multiple attendees have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least one partygoer has been hospitalized. Although restaurants were allowed to open at 25% capacity on the day of the party, restaurant visitors were also required to wear face masks while not eating; videos of the event — including one showing a prominent local candidate for city council happily leading a conga line — revealed that the majority of people in attendance neglected many of the public health guidelines designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

In response to media coverage of its party, the Club released a statement that read, in part, “We abided by all precautions. But we are not the mask police, nor are we the social distancing police. Adults have the absolute right to make their own decisions, and clearly many chose to interact like normal humans and not paranoid zombies in hazmat suits. This is for some reason controversial to the people who believe it’s their job to tell us all what to do.”

Evoking something like “liberty” to defend the flaunting of public health regulations is, at this point, a common refrain in conversations criticizing official responses to COVID-19. According to such a perspective, the coronavirus pandemic is viewed more as a private threat to individual freedoms than a public threat to health and well-being. For various reasons (ranging from basic calculations about personal risk to outright denials of the reality of the virus as a whole), the possibility that someone could unintentionally spread the coronavirus to strangers while unmasked in public is ranked as less significant than the possibility that someone could have their personal liberties inhibited by inconvenient regulations. As some anti-mask protestors (including Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia’s fourteenth congressional district) have said: “My body, my choice,” co-opting the long-standing pro-abortion slogan to refer instead to their asserted right to keep their faces uncovered in public, without qualification.

Critics of this perspective often call it “reckless” and chastise so-called “anti-maskers” for being cavalier with their neighbors’ health; in at least one case, people have even been arrested and charged with reckless endangerment for knowingly exposing passengers on a plane to COVID-19. Against this, folks might respond by downplaying the overall effect of coronavirus morbidity: as one skeptic explained in August, “I hear all the time, people are like, ‘I’d rather be safe than sorry, I don’t want to be a grandma killer.’ I’m sorry to sound so harsh — I’m laughing because grandmas and grandpas die all the time. It’s sad. But here’s the thing: It’s about blind obedience and compliance.”

At present, the United States has registered more than 20 million cases of COVID-19 and over 340,000 patients have died from the illness; while these numbers are staggering to many, others might do some simple math to conclude that over 19 million people have (or might still potentially) recover from the disease. For those who view a mortality rate of “only” 1.5% as far too low to warrant extensive governmental regulation of daily life, they might weigh the guarantee of government control against the risk of contracting a disease and measure the former as more personally threatening than the latter. (It is worth reiterating at this point that COVID-19 patients are five times more likely to die than are flu patients — the law of large numbers is particularly unhelpful when trying to think about pandemic statistics.) Even if someone knows that they might unintentionally spread the coronavirus while shopping, boarding a plane, or partying during the holidays, they might also think it’s unlikely that their accidental victim will ultimately suffer more than they might personally suffer from an uncomfortable mask.

To be clear, the risks of contracting COVID-19 are indeed serious and evidence already suggests that even cases with only mild initial symptoms might nevertheless produce drastic long-lasting effects to a patient’s pulmonary, cardiovascular, immune, nervous, or reproductive systems. But let’s imagine for a moment that none of that is true: what if the perspective described above was completely and unequivocally correct and the Whitestone Republican Club’s recommendation to “Make your own calculated decisions, don’t give in to fear or blindly obey the media and politicians, and respect the decisions of others” was really as simple and insulated as they purport it to be?

There would still be a significant problem.

In general, we take for granted that the strangers we meet when we step out of our front door are not threats to our personal well-being. Some philosophers have explained this kind of expectation as being rooted in a kind of “social contract” or agreement to behave in certain ways relative to others such that we are afforded certain protections. On such views, individuals might be thought of as having certain duties to protect the well-being of their fellow citizens in certain ways, even if those duties are personally inconvenient, because those citizens benefit in turn from the protection of others (shirking public health regulations might then be seen, on this view, as a kind of free rider problem).

However, this doesn’t clearly explain the sort of moralizing condemnation directed towards anti-maskers; why, for example, might someone in a city far from Queens care about the choices made at the Whitestone Republican Club’s holiday party? Certainly, it might seem odd for someone in, say, central Texas to expect someone else in southeast New York to uphold a kind of give-and-take contractarian social contract!

But, more than just assuming that strangers are not threats, we often suppose that our civic neighbors are, in some sense, our partners who work in tandem with us to accomplish mutually beneficial goals. Here an insight from John Dewey is helpful: in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems, Dewey points out that even before we talk about the organization and regulation of states or governments, we first must identify a group of people with shared interests — what Dewey calls a “public.” After considering how any private human action can have both direct and indirect consequences, Dewey explains that “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.” On this definition, many different kinds of “publics” (what others might call “communities” or “social groups”) abound, even if they lack clearly defined behavioral expectations for their members. To be a member of a public in this sense is simply to be affected by the other members of a group that you happen to be in (whether or not you consciously agreed to be a part of that group). As Dewey explains later, “The planets in a constellation would form a community if they were aware of the connection of the activities of each with those of the others and could use this knowledge to direct behavior.”

This might be why negligence in New York of public health regulations bothers people even if they are far elsewhere: that negligence is evidence that partygoers are either not “aware of the connection of the activities of each with those of the others” or they are not “us[ing] this knowledge to direct behavior.” (Given the prevalence of information about COVID-19, the latter certainly seems most likely.) That is to say, people who don’t attend to the indirect consequences of their actions are, in effect, not creating the collective “public” that we take for granted as “Americans” (even apart from any questions of governmental or legal regulations).

So, even if no one physically dies (or even gets sick) from the actions of someone ignoring public health regulations, that ignorance nevertheless damages the social fabric on which we depend for our sense of cultural cohesion that stretches from New York to Texas and beyond. (When such negligence is intentional, the social fabric is only rent deeper and more extensively). Americans often wax eloquently about unifying ideals like “E Pluribus Unum” that project an air of national solidarity, despite our interstate diversity: one of the many victims of the COVID-19 pandemic might end up being the believability of such a sentiment.

Is the U.S. Becoming Less Democratic?

photograph of worn USA flag on pole with clouds behind

What does it mean to be a democracy and is the United States becoming less democratic in nature? With November rapidly approaching, the election has been marred by accusations of voter suppression, worries about Russian interference, claims that the entire election is rigged, and concern that this will be the most litigious election ever. Given this state of affairs, it seems like the democratic process is being undermined. However, the process of voting and democracy are not the same thing; the former is an instrument for enabling the latter. Does the problem go beyond one election?

American philosopher John Dewey understood democracy as a much broader phenomenon. While elections and the machinery of democracy matter, and while the vote of a majority is important, it is more important to consider how the will of a majority is formed or how the public can manifest the desires and preferences that matter to it. As he notes in Democracy and Education, “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” that when fully realized affects all modes of human association. In The Public and Its Problems, he explains, “From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs…From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interest and goods which are common.”

Essentially, democracy allows for individuals to provide input for the direction of the group while the group ensures that each individual within the group can realize their potential in keeping with common interests. It is a method for ensuring that conflicts within a society can be resolved in ways that promote growth and development, “it is the idea of community life itself.” Since these kinds of social interactions go beyond the scope of government, it stands to reason that democracy itself has a larger scope than how a government is selected.

For Dewey, in order for a political democracy to function properly it must allow for the interest of the public to be the supreme guide for government activity to enable the public to achieve its goals. To do this, however, a public must be able to identify itself and its aims. But, the public is prevented from doing this for reasons that are as relevant today (probably more so) as they were for Dewey. Rapid technological and social development means that we are simultaneously able to both affect distant locations, yet often lack a clear sense of the distant consequences of our actions. Lack of public awareness of these consequences means that we must rely on expert administrators.

But, during the age of fake news, COVID conspiracies, and the rise of QAnon, there is disagreement over basic facts. How can a democratic public perceive indirect consequences when they can’t agree on what is happening? One might expect the public to perceive a threat like COVID and assert what it wants, but without a common understanding, the government response has been confused, and significant segments of the public have demonstrated through protest and gathering that they simply aren’t concerned about the indirect consequences they may cause.

COVID-19 has been a global threat, it has caused (at least) almost 200,000 deaths, and it has created an economic crisis, yet many are unwilling to tolerate limited sacrifices such as wearing a mask and social distancing. Given that this has been the response to COVID, how will the public respond to the issue of climate change when the effects become more apparent? How will segments of the public respond when asked to make more significant sacrifices for a problem they may not believe is real?

It is also increasingly evident that tribalism is affecting the machinery of democracy. Partisanship has become an end in itself as a significant number of voters seem to believe that a platform does not matter, political norms (such as over Supreme Court nominations) do not matter, and the traditional stances taken by political parties do not really matter. This may lead to a situation where the Supreme Court, whose legitimacy has already been questioned, seems even less legitimate, just before a very litigious election.

Dewey believes that it is important to distinguish the machinery of democracy (elections, Congress, the Supreme Court) from democracy as a way of life. The form this machinery takes should respond to the needs of the public of the day and should be open to experimental revision. One might be tempted to believe that so long as this machinery can be maintained and revised where necessary there is no threat to democracy. However, Dewey suggests that since the machinery of democracy is merely an instrument for achieving what a democratic public wants, short of a unified public, it is futile to consider what machinery is appropriate. In other words, any potential reforms regarding mail-in voting, the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, and so on will not address the underlying issue without first addressing the fractured democratic public. If the public remains unable to find itself, the government will be less and less able to represent it and that makes the nation less democratic in the long run.