Saturday 04 February 2023

Human rights, public health and the consequences of the ongoing vaccine debate

This column first appeared in Malta Today

On Monday 17 January, Malta will be joining a host of other countries which have already implemented the measure which distinguishes between those who are fully vaccinated (and now “boostered”) and those who are not, for entry into indoor restaurants and bars, as well as other public spaces.  

This measure has been welcomed by those who have followed all the rules and medical advice from Day One, and has been vehemently opposed with protests by those who have fought the health authorities every inch of the way on every single measure: social distancing, masks, vaccines, you name it. They claim it infringes on their human rights, forcing them to be vaccinated “against their will”.  Discrimination, apartheid, fascism –  what has become known as the Green Pass has been called every name in the book, and yet, the Maltese who were determined to travel complied with it (because they had to) and came back saying how safe they felt as a result of this measure.

For the last few months, thousands of Maltese residents have travelled to these very same countries where they were required to show some version of the Green Pass. By November 2021, 16 countries all over Europe, from Italy to France to Belgium, Austria, Cyprus and Germany had introduced it.  

Of course, the local protesters are not necessarily the same people who travelled (in fact they most certainly aren’t because: no vaccine, no travel) – but I still wonder how long these protests will continue when scientists and doctors who are experts in this field all over the world are all in agreement that this is the only way forward if we ever want to finally stop having our every move dictated by a virus. The world has endured countless rapid tests and PCR tests, the word quarantine has become part of our vocabulary and we’ve become so used to wearing masks that carrying one around has become second nature, like checking that you have your keys.  

So when I see the protests I am still unable to understand just what it is these people want – for the medical profession to just surrender and do nothing and let people get severely ill and die in some kind of bizarre, heartless game of ‘survival of the fittest’?  

Every day I read comments that, ‘it’s just a cold, so let’s get on with it’ but this attitude is in stark contrast to the cases I personally know of, of people who have been severely affected, and some who have sadly, died. And there are also people who will have to carry the fear and lifetime guilt that they were the carriers who gave the infection to a vulnerable or elderly relative. For one person it might just be a case of the sniffles, for others it can be much more dangerous, depending on their immune system.  

I have read the articles and even tried to watch the videos which launch relentless attacks against the data and facts staring us in the face.  I’m afraid none of them make sense to me, and without logic and rationality I quickly lose interest. I also base my judgement depending on the source. I am no scientist so I can only rely on those who have made this their life’s work – and faced by a solid source quoting sound research compiled from reams of statistics pouring in from all over the world, and the opinion of some random Joe Bloggs interviewed by a dodgy news site, I know which one I will believe.   

Granted, the public out there is confused and bewildered by the often conflicting information, but there are also those who only seek out information which conveniently suits their bias (“I don’t see why I need to take the booster, so here, I found a video which confirms my view that this is all a money-making scheme for Big Pharma”).  For all I know, yes, it could be a money-making scheme, but with that reasoning so is any of the medicine we take on a daily basis, from our cholesterol and blood pressure pills all the way to the most sobering treatment of all, chemotherapy.  All of it costs money, and all of it has to be paid for either by us or by our Governments (ergo by us, through our taxes).  

But what is the alternative? Do we all stop taking the pills which are keeping us on an even keel and prolonging our lifespan by combating our various ailments?  Are all those who are so defiant against the vaccine as equally defiant if they need a doctor to treat them or God forbid, a hospital bed?  

I read an op-ed piece recently which made a rather drastic suggestion. Peter Singer, writing on the news website said: “When both a vaccinated and an unvaccinated patient with COVID-19 need the last available bed in a hospital’s intensive care unit, the vaccinated patient should get it. Those who view vaccination as a “personal choice” need to bear personal responsibility for choosing to place others’ lives at risk.”

As I said, drastic.  But I do see his very valid point. Although, unfortunately, we are not yet being given exact statistics about the hospital situation and exact causes of death locally, it is an undisputed fact that the booster has considerably reduced the number of ITU patients and deaths.  Country after country has reported the same thing. If the unvaccinated did not affect others, I would say yes, sure your body, your choice.  But every ITU bed taken up unnecessarily when there are still people suffering from other chronic illnesses is an ITU bed which has been taken (there is no other way to put this), selfishly, almost frivolously, because it could have been avoided.   This is not to mention all the hospital staff and resources having to care for Covid patients while patients waiting for other essential surgeries have to be put on hold. 

This is much like the enforcement of helmets for cyclists and motorcyclists, seat belts for passengers and car seats for children, which have protected and saved countless lives but which were resisted when they were first introduced.  Smoking in restaurants and bars was banned against much opposition, yet people now take it for granted. There have been countless laws and regulations introduced over the years which are “good for us” and in a way are there to protect us from our own reckless behaviour as well as, indirectly, protecting others.  

The way I see it, the vaccine against Covid is just another, similar layer of protection and the sooner we can dilute the  ferocity of the virus so that it does actually become “just like a cold” the sooner we can leave behind this surreal world of masks, swab tests and fear of human contact.  Most of all,  I look forward to the day when I can board a plane with the same nonchalant spirit I vaguely remember from two years ago.  

Entitled much?

There is a famous story about the billionaire American businesswoman Leona Roberts Helmsley who was overheard by her housekeeper dismissively saying that, “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes”. That one little comment proved to be her downfall and she ended up spending 16 years in prison for tax evasion.

Here on the local front, we keep hearing of a similar attitude. We have heard of Nationalist (now former) MP David Thake owing hundreds of thousands in unpaid VAT. Of course, that’s peanuts compared to construction magnate Charles “ic-Caqnu” Polidano who owes an eye-watering €40 million in taxes. In all, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana placed the amount owing at (wait for it) €5 BILLION.  That amount is surely not owing from the ‘little people’, whose every last cent is declared. And these billions in arrears have been accumulating for years.

The sense of entitlement, which extends beyond not paying taxes but also to the air of arrogance that one can get away with anything, has always been something that sets my teeth on edge. “The rules are there for other people, but not for me” is an attitude we see around us all too often. The paradox is that this often happens because it is precisely “the little people” who feed into the arrogant person’s conceit, thus perpetuating their self-importance and illusions of grandeur.  Deprived of attention and publicity, the megalomaniac would probably deflate. Unfortunately though, the power wielded by the very rich is a heady one, and they know it. The little people depend on them for their livelihood and often have to kowtow to what the rich want in order to get by.  

More often than not, it is the vulgar nouveau riche who treat the little people the most abysmally, probably to distance themselves from the humble roots they themselves came from.  It is also the obscenely wealthy who are often the most loathe to pay their dues. They say the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. Indeed…for what is this money after all but pieces of paper on which we have placed so much exaggerated importance, for which people are willing to lie, steal and kill and which ultimately, when we are all in our coffins, will mean nothing at all. 

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