A woman receives her third COVID-19 shot at a vaccine center in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo by ZupaBA VUCBA, via Flickr.

Mandatory coronavirus vaccinations could be right for now but wrong in the long run.

Those who oppose COVID-19 vaccinations are like people who have found themselves in an unknown jungle and don’t trust the natives who are describing its risks. They’re dying in an information cacophony because they’re following sounds they don’t understand. I’ve tried to explain to some of them that what they’re hearing are voices of sirens luring them to cliffs in order to sink their ships. And that they should plug their ears, as Odysseus ordered his sailors to do. I haven’t succeeded.

But it is precisely the story of Odysseus that tells us sirens have always been with us and will continue to be, as will people who succumb to their allure. The current vaccine conflict shows us we live in a society that is archaic in part – a fact that had been hidden under a coat of paint in the form of the modern state. At issue now is how best to solve this conflict. Should the state take advantage of its license to use organized violence and act against the unvaccinated?

New-Age Polytheism

There are two ways of looking at the pandemic: Either it is a temporary nuisance and a solvable problem, or a monumental crisis whose social and political consequences will stay with us much longer than the virus itself. The problem is, a quick solution to a temporary problem could increase the long-term consequences, with individual freedom becoming their ultimate victim.

This freedom also includes the right to harm oneself. I truly dislike anti-vaxxers, but the fact that they’re primarily hurting themselves is something that distinguishes them from the common image of an enemy – which is something they already have become in the eyes of many vaccinated people.

The profile of the average Slovak anti-vaxxer can be generalized this way: He doesn’t believe the world is as it appears to be. He’s convinced it has a hidden face as well as hidden intentions, which it deviously promotes by means of the vaccine. Therefore, he doesn’t trust anyone, just in case. Paradoxically, this binds him in a trusting relationship to others who also don’t trust anyone.

Such a person is a product of confused times and not only no longer trusts the state but also no longer trusts the church. Slovak bishops are encouraging believers to get vaccinated because it’s a “mature expression of our faith in God.” But their words have missed their mark, because many Catholics have regressed to an archaic polytheism: They have their own gods, whom they worship as needed. The anti-vaccination god is just one of many.

Of course, this person also is a product of politicians who tell him the world is different than it appears to be. Former Prime Minister Robert Fico, for example, who bravely reveals his true enemies: big pharma, Soros, the CIA.

The populists who have thrown their hat in with the hoaxers are digging their voters’ graves, but not their own. The number of COVID victims is not large enough to really hurt the populists. True, in Russia hundreds of thousands of people have paid the highest price for Putin’s investment of billions in the spreading of lies. Russians no longer trust him when he recommends the vaccine. But there are still not enough corpses to truly weaken him.

What has been weakened is democracy, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. This, however, is a consequence of the failure of the modern state, which hasn’t cared about the education of its citizens and has left them vulnerable to the information jungle. Yes, the unvaccinated are now filling hospitals and harming themselves and everyone else. But solving this with mandatory vaccination, an act of violence, will only further weaken the democratic nature of our state.

This doesn’t apply to employees of the state, such as government officials, police officers, health workers, and teachers, because they have voluntarily limited their freedom with their choice of profession. For them, the state should have mandated vaccination a long time ago.

The High Cost of Freedom

In Western Europe this is less of a problem, because most people there live in mental harmony with a modern – and above all functional – state. And those protesting mandatory vaccination there are not just radical-right voters but often young leftists and environmentalists – modern-thinking people. Over here, it is just archaic heretics.

For me, defending their freedom and their right to resist goes against the grain. And it’s true that I too could die because of them – even though I’m vaccinated – if I have a heart attack or a busy ambulance doesn’t arrive in time. The cost of freedom has always been high. It’s just that in our region it came practically free of charge after 1989 thanks to various historical circumstances. And it would be too easy to defend freedom only for those with whom I agree.

It is certainly true that brakes can be put on the pandemic through mandatory vaccination – forced collective defense. But this step would establish the rules for state interventions in other major crises that lie around the corner. And any future government will gladly refer to these rules. Then it might be too late for an effective defense of freedom.

It is possible that the archaic part of society, which doesn’t trust the modern state, will obey it this time, out of fear. But in the privacy of their homes, adherents will worship their angry gods all the more for it. Perhaps it would be wiser to allow them their free wandering around the information jungle, in the hopes that they will tire of it one day, rather than to forbid it. It’s a risky strategy, but risk is freedom’s natural companion.

Of course there’s also a chance that I myself am subject to an archaic notion of freedom, one no longer in accordance with the modern state. I can see it the young generation, which reacts with panic at the notion that its right to a safe life might not be guaranteed. I can only hope they are not wrong in making safety a condition of freedom.

Martin M. Simecka is a commentator and editor at the Slovak news site Dennik N, where this article originally appeared. 

Translated by Matus Nemeth.