Dr Mike Lee: Vaccine mandates are discrimination, but thats okay


There has been some fear that vaccine mandates may lead to further divisions betweenthose who are pro-vaccination and those who are anti. At the core of the issue is the idea of discrimination.

However, some cases of discrimination, or the act of understanding and acting on the difference between things is okay, as long as the discrimination is not based on something over which the discriminated person has no control.

Before we go further, I want to draw a distinction between “attitude” and “access”. Let’s park those who have a positive or neutral “attitude” towards the vaccine but have “access” issues off to one side.

I think everyone agrees there should be no “access” issues and barriers for anyone eligible and willing to be vaccinated.

Now, focusing on those who have an “attitude” problem with the covid vaccine, for the most part, uncertainty is making those people reluctant.

While an educational approach will work for most, there will remain some extreme advocates of the “my body, my choice” argument. However, when lives are at risk, “freedom of choice” (civil rights) needs to take a back seat to “freedom from harm” (civic duty).

Anti-vaxxers argue that vaccine mandates are a violation of human rights and freedom of choice. I argue that treating people who are more likely to be harmful differently to those who are less likely to be harmful is necessary.

Some may say this is discrimination, I disagree. Treating people differently based on something they cannot control such as age, gender, or race is discrimination and is wrong.

However, the anti-vaxxers are not defined by race, gender, nor age. They are defined by a choice. And when a choice is harmful to others, it is okay for society to structure rules around choices and behaviours that are detrimental.

For example, we expect the police to treat people who choose to drink and drive differently to those choosing to stay at home when drunk. We also expect teachers to manage behaviourally disruptive kids differently to non-disruptive kids.

None of us would be judged badly if we treated a stranger who is behaving dangerously differently to the way we treat our friends and family.

Treating people differently because of harmful behaviour is not prejudiced discrimination, it is a reasonable response to anti-social behaviour. So, while people should remain entitled to their choice. We as society are also entitled to respond to their choice in a way that protects our right to remain “free from harm”.

Society’s responses may include a reluctance to do business with people who choose to remain unsafe, and a stronger preference to interact with people who voluntarily share their immunisation status. A greater ability to rely on vaccinated workers, due to an inability to rely on employees unable or unwilling to prove their vaccination status. And an inclination to support business who can prove they are serious about preserving the safety of their staff, society, and customers.

For those who think businesses already have far too much to worry about without also monitoring and proving their vaccine credentials, all I can say is that the monitoring and reporting of corporate social responsibility, workplace safety, and sustainability policies were also unheard of just a few decades earlier.

We need to realise that planning for, and dealing with, Covid is the new cost of doing businesses.

Customers already discriminate or treat businesses differently based on their green credentials and their stance on ethical issues. So, is it too hard to imagine that a business response to Covid vaccine would not also garner similar society support?

And while it is less common for businesses to exclude certain groups of customers, banning antivaxxers from some stores is now gaining traction.

However, such public proclamations can also be risky with some anti-vaxxers purposely punishing bars and restaurants requiring vaccine certificates with negative Yelp reviews.

Hence the reluctance of some businesses to make a public stance, at this stage.

Most business owners (like the majority of society) are pro-vaccine, yet the volatility of the situation has them demanding stronger legislation from the government. Business owners abhor grey areas pertaining to the enforcement of blurry rules. Yet, when rules to prevent harm are clear, for example, businesses can be fined for selling alcohol or cigarettes to underaged customers, most businesses will happily do the right thing.

That’s why the new vaccine mandates are a step in the right direction and could not have come sooner.

• Dr Mike Lee, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Auckland Business School. This article represents the author’s personal opinions rather than the opinion of his employer.

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