As vaccine production and distribution accelerate, a new set of challenges around what Americans can and should demand of one another is emerging. And we’re not ready for them. The public has been told for the past year that we need to mask up, physically distance, and lock down for the greater good. Now that vaccines are here, does that same greater good mean that society can discriminate against the unvaccinated? Do Americans have a right not to get vaccinated? If so, how far does that right go?
The American discourse about rights is not up to the challenge that these questions pose. We tend to take an excessively legalistic approach that flattens conflicts over rights into a false binary: A right gives license to rights-holders; lack of a right leaves people at the mercy of the state. But this binary does not help resolve the kind of dilemmas that will confront Americans more and more as the vaccination rollout continues.
Suppose that a state or a county were to require all residents to get a vaccine, enforced by legal sanctions. Or what if vaccination were required not for everyone, but just for children attending public school? Imagine that the government says you need a vaccine before riding a city bus, boarding a commercial flight, or staying in a hotel. Suppose, alternatively, that no legal mandate exists, but all of the major airlines and hotel chains decide to impose a vaccination requirement themselves. Suppose that restaurants, beauty salons, and gyms allow only vaccinated customers access to tables, haircuts, and ellipticals. Suppose that most employers fire or refuse to hire the unvaccinated.