The problem with vaccine mandates

I live near Middlefield, Ohio, the center of the fourth-largest Amish settlement in America. I regularly see the horse and buggy operations on the road. Who am I to tell these people that I know better about how they should live than they do? Very few Amish people are getting the COVID vaccine and Amish communities have experienced some of the state’s highest rates of infection and deaths, but they are living according to their faith and God’s will.

I know it’s complicated. More than five million people have died from this pandemic, including 747,000 in the United States. There has not been consensus in the U.S., or a coordinated global response, and this has certainly made things worse. Many of these problems impact populations differently, so a process that develops common understandings is necessary.

I made the choice to get vaccinated on the first day of my eligibility, and I understand that the end of the pandemic may well depend on many more choosing to get vaccinated. I am, however, challenging the strategic choice to coerce people into getting shots they do not want with mandates.

Strategic thinking requires us to look at the underlying interests and values of the parties involved. It is easier to find collaborative solutions when trust has been built and when mutually satisfying outcomes have been identified. Not all anti-vaccine positions are the same. For instance, perhaps an Amish community would receive better public health benefit from wearing masks and public distancing than from a focus on vaccines?

Coercion has been intentionally employed because forcing people to get vaccinated is the ultimate goal. I believe this is a big mistake. It has forced people to draw lines in the sand and dig into their positions. The deeper people get into their positions the harder it gets to reach agreements. Other strategies would likely have much better short-term and long-term success.

I have met people who have skepticism about vaccine safety, and I have heard stories of vaccine injuries — they are real. Dismissing people as foolish is not a good strategy for bringing people to the table. The common goals — health and safety, with freedom — are lost. The mandates are threatening many people’s livelihoods. This is no minor issue — the long-term impacts of forcing someone to either get a shot they do not consent to or to lose employment are significant and life-changing.

A survey in September 2021 revealed six main reasons why people aren’t getting vaccinated: “They are concerned about possible side effects. They don’t believe they need it. They’re waiting to see if it’s safe. They don’t trust the vaccine. They don’t trust the government. Or they don’t think COVID is a big threat.” Mandates do not address any of these concerns, but make several of them worse — it is strategic misalignment.

There are many layers to the problem. The decades-long campaigns of science skepticism may promote some of the conspiracy thinking, but the pharmaceutical companies have fed that; earlier this year three major drug distributors along with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) agreed to a $26 billion settlement with states to resolve thousands of lawsuits over the opioid crisis, and right now J&J is engaging in corporate chicanery to avoid paying damages to those likely given cancer by their asbestos-laden baby powder.

It all comes down to trust; trust is built when you make and keep agreements. Health has become a casualty to politics, and that should concern everyone. The bottom line is that we cannot force our way into a better future. Coercive mandates are increasing distrust and degrading relationships. There is great need for important conversations to identify common goals and the development of plans for achieving them.

The current mandates model the opposite behavior and suggest force as an expedient strategy. Good strategy for responding to people who question the safety of vaccines is proving they are safe and/or offer benefits; all coercion does in this case is punish a person for caring about their health, and that is a missed opportunity.

Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution.