Why Covid dissidents need to be understood, not demonised

Unthinkable: Lack of access to democratic processes can fuel distrust, says Dr Katherine Furman

The Irish Times

Joe Humphreys

Coronavirus conspiracy theories may have started out as a joke, but they now threaten to derail the global fight against the pandemic. Vaccine hesitancy is identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the top 10 threats to public health, and resistance to the new Covid-19 jabs risks undermining the efficacy of Europe’s vaccination rollout plan.

UK scientific advisers last month voiced concern at data showing 72 per cent of black people saying they were unlikely to have the jab. Historical issues of unethical healthcare research and institutional racism were cited as key reasons for lower levels of trust, an expert report found. Other research shows conspiracy theories tend to flourish in communities that have traditionally felt the brunt of economic hardship and political neglect.

For this reason, argues Dr Katherine Furman, we need to understand Covid policy dissidents and vaccine refuseniks rather than demonise them. Furman, a philosopher and public policy researcher based at the University of Liverpool, is one of the speakers at a conference in Dublin next week on how a democracy should deal with conscientious objectors. In advance, she sets out her stall for the Irish Times Unthinkable philosophy column.

[Questions addressed in the column]

  • How does one distinguish between a conscientious objector and a mere law-breaker?
  • To what extent can a liberal democracy allow for conscientious objectors to public health measures?
  • What is an appropriate punishment for people who – in the form of political protest – break Covid rules on mask-wearing or breach lockdown restrictions?
  • The conscientious objectors we tend to respect from history are those devoid of self-pity – those, like the pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who preferred to go to prison rather than cross a moral red line. Is punishment something conscientious objectors should stoically accept as the price for living in a state that decides its laws democratically?

[Full Text]

One thought on “Why Covid dissidents need to be understood, not demonised”

  1. The article is interesting, but fails to distinguish between an objection motivated by distrust and concerns about government overreach and an objection grounded in the conviction that what is being demanded is immoral.

    For example, one who refuses to abide by lockdown restrictions and related measures may deny that the restrictions are justified by available evidence. This need not entail a claim that one acts immorally in abiding by the restrictions. The more usual assertion appears to be that it is imprudent or dangerous to do so because it encourages what is seen to be an abuse of state power, or mindless surrender to the medico-legal establishment. The distrust referred to by Dr. Furman may make it difficult or even impossible to overcome this kind of objection.

    In contrast, refusal to accept a vaccine because it has been produced by reliance upon an ethically contested source reflects a conviction that one acts immorally by doing so. This is conscientious objection. The most common concern appears to be related to vaccines developed using cells derived from foetuses obtained by induced abortions. This issue may be better appreciated by considering a purely hypothetical analogy: conscientious objection to a vaccine developed using tissue or cells obtained from executed political prisoners. Conscientious objection to such a vaccine would likely be more widely understood and appreciated.

    Conscientious refusals grounded in moral or ethical objections to the source of a vaccine can be addressed by demonstrating either that the objections are unfounded (because vaccine development did not entail immoral/unethical acts or the use of morally/ethically contested sources) or that acceptance of the vaccine can be morally justified (at least conditionally) despite an association with immoral/unethical acts. The latter conclusion is exemplified by the position of the Christian Medical and Dental Association (USA) and Catholic Church authorities.

    Some Covid restrictions on religious practices may generate objections from some religious believers who believe that the are being prevented from doing what they believe is commanded by God. However, this form of objection falls outside the scope of the Protection of Conscience Project.

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