In Margaret Atwood’s fierce book of ‘social realism’, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, she explores the dynamic nature of authoritarianism, including the ideas and connotations that go along with such a societal transformation. The powerless protagonist, ‘Offred’ conveys how ideas, attitudes and values have transformed, most notably that of freedom transforming from ‘freedom to’, to ‘freedom from’. Within this concept Atwood professes a profound notion that we can very much relate to our current reality; does freedom and the notion of being free exist paradoxically, does one have to sacrifice certain rights for the wider social body to be prosperous and free?
Whilst Atwood’s religious absolutist land of Gilead is a rather extreme example of this concept, the ‘freedom to, freedom from’ paradox still stands on a myriad of issues that influence the nature of a western liberal democracy, from the role of Government, free speech, internet surveillance and even the necessity of driving licences. It is a paradox that has influenced the thinking of political theorists and philosophers since the enlightenment.
In recent times however, it has supplemented the underlying collage of ideas behind one of the fundamental social divides post-pandemic, vaccines. One may find it difficult to uncover a more polarising social issue within our society. On the one hand, a reluctant attitude to vaccines is seen as being akin to insanity, a willing decision to reject all science, rationality and even humility. The other side of the camp view vaccines as the equivalent of swimming in a crocodile infested lake; a moronic participation within the activities of an elitist establishment hell-bent on controlling us all.
It seems that so far Western Governments have skirted around this, ready to trigger grenades of unrest with the notion of individual responsibility; be free to be vaccinated and protected from Covid-19 or choose to remain unvaccinated and live at your own risk. However, the rise in recent months of the Delta iteration of the Covid virus has thrown Western Governments into an unwanted dilemma. Many western countries are facing drastic rises in cases of Covid-19, in which the vast majority of serious cases are amongst those who are not fully vaccinated. Austria, The Netherlands and Belgium have announced either full or partial lockdown measures. Germany has warned that they would soon follow with health minister Jens Spahn spectacularly declaring that all Germans will either be ‘vaccinated, cured or dead from Covid in a few months’.
The Austrian Government then finally took a dive into the deep end, declaring a new vaccine mandate policy in which Austrian citizens would be fined 4,000 euros from February for refusing to get a vaccine. Daily figures have shown the new policy mandate has had mixed results. Whilst hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated citizens have been incentivised to get their shots, many of the more vociferous anti-vaxxers have and are likely to remain steadfast against vaccinations. After all, 4,000 euros is mincemeat in comparison to claims that Covid vaccinations are likely to cause infertility, autism or contain microchips.
Should we consider vaccine mandates an indictment of individual freedom? Can we consider ourselves a liberal democracy if we do not let people make their own decisions about their bodies? Reports from both the Government and the NHS suggest that the unvaccinated pose an indirectly existential threat to many in the UK. Hospitals, in particular intensive care units have transformed into the realm of the unvaccinated, those with serious covid symptoms that may have been extremely avoidable. This is in the midst of what is likely to be one of the most serious flu pandemics taking place this winter due to a rising lack of immunity originating from the pandemic. Those who choose to remain unvaccinated will drain health resources, hospital beds and staff, endangering millions. Relinquishing the freedom of the unvaccinated may enable many more the freedom from the threat of their own mortality.
So Johnson, Javid and Raab, please take your pick. What will it be, freedom to or freedom from?