On Liberty, sans jab

If ‘vaccination is our route to liberty,’ as Tony Blair recently said (what is it with former prime ministers insisting on spruiking wisdom 24-7?) there are many of us who might consider changing our idea of what constitutes liberty.

But firstly, let’s be clear. To say that the vaccine is our route to liberty is an omission of truth. Though the vaccine may indeed represent a way out of the hellscape that governments around the world have crafted, it is most certainly not a requirement for ending current insane liberty-crushing policies, such as aiming for that mythical beast called Covid Zero, using lockdowns as a kneejerk reaction to the resurgence of a few cases, mass testing of asymptomatic people, and the severe restricting of travel. Removal of these measures need not be contingent on a vaccine.

If we are told that without a vaccine we can’t travel, go to restaurants, or even attend university (as is being touted in the US), perhaps we might reassess whether these social mores are worth keeping in our lives.

Indeed, seeing how easily our freedoms were taken away from us might make us hesitant to once again embrace them. For better or worse, it might encourage us change how we live our lives altogether. Rather than living a yo-yo existence—Sydney, Covid’s back! Here we go again!—perhaps we should instead look to curate our lives such that our ‘freedoms,’ as dictated by the state, are no longer integral to our lifestyle. As the great C. S. Lewis once said “don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”

And, sure, we could just go along with what’s expected of us and take the vaccine, as the vast majority of people seem to be doing, but for those of us not prepared to do so—for many reasons: we disagree fundamentally with recent government interference in our lives and the way the Covid crisis has been handled in general; we believe that the risk of taking the vaccine is higher than the risk of Covid itself and that it is narrow-minded to focus so heavily on avoiding Covid illness to the exclusion of other associated problems; we feel as though we shouldn’t be forced to take the vaccine under the threat of becoming part of a group of second-class citizens who are no longer free—we need a new path. Perhaps if we separate ourselves somewhat from society’s trappings, we may be able to regain our liberty, sans jab. And we may become more resilient and happy in the process.

So what am I suggesting? What could a ‘new normal’ for the unvaxxed look like? If we’re not allowed to mix in polite society, are we supposed to just languish in isolation? What a vile phrase that is, ‘new normal,’ particularly as it relates to potentially reoccurring restrictions that prevent us from human contact, even with our loved ones. Amazingly, many Australians have embraced this as a potential long-term strategy for ‘defeating’ Covid (as though this is a reasonable goal), even claiming to prefer the state of lockdown and its attendant scaling back of social commitments to their hectic, pre-covid lives. These people seem quite happy to remain in their little bubbles, having food delivered and binging on Netflix, ‘drugged by consumer abundance’ (R. R. Reno,in his great book Return of the Strong Gods). But I’m considering a different route.

I’m suggesting we consider creating more self-sufficient lifestyles, somewhat removed from the trappings of modern society. This could entail moving out of the cities, growing our own food and having our extended family closer by. I’m suggesting we remove our desire for the carrots that are being offered—the carrot of travel, the carrot of dining out, the carrot of working in cushy government jobs—and grow our own, literally and metaphorically.

Perhaps the days of relying on the services of the community at large are over and we need to once again consider creating villages rather than metropolises. As we are now—small, insular families, wedged between other small, insular families—we get much of our support and sometimes even our reason for being from government, large corporations, and the workplace. But we could be so much more resilient in a different setting; one that doesn’t revolve around convenience, entertainment, or globetrotting.

For until the onset of Coronamania, it seemed perfectly fine to scatter ourselves across the earth, perhaps hopping on a plane to visit our elderly kin and still call Australia home once or twice a year. That is no longer an easy option, as evidenced by the almost half a million expats who have now changed their life plans and resettled back in the motherland.

Yet despite being happy to have Australia as their home base, many people I talk to say their primary reason for getting the vaccine is so they can travel. This got me thinking of such luxuries as addictions (“I’ll do anything, just let me travel/go out to dinner/stay at the fancy hotel. I deserve it!”) and considering how we might break them; how we might wean ourselves off the drugs of consumer abundance.

For what is truly important in life? To me, it’s nature and family/community. During the worst of the Covid lockdowns, many in big cities were denied both. Our major cities are now too big and too much under the control of state governments to be relied upon to provide appropriate succour (hence we are now seeing the mass emigration of Victorians to other Australian states). Perhaps there won’t even be any thriving city centres left in the long-run, with many white collar workers now angling to conduct their careers from home. Small country villages, with self-sustaining citizens who can help each other and share resources seems like a better future plan. Yes, we’ll still need toilet paper in our villages, but you get the idea. Less reliance on carrots, metaphorically speaking.

Of course, many people are already living this way. Country folk. And I’ll bet they were much less affected by the draconian restrictions than the rest of us over the last year or so. Now I’m not advocating a tree change for everyone. Clearly, many city dwellers are very happy where they are, and those who aren’t may not be able to change their circumstances anyway. We can’t all pivot ourselves into a better lifestyle; we’re not all affluent public servants or corporates, able to work from home on full salaries. But it is possible that the great unvaxxed will start to shun those luxuries that society once offered freely and may decide that the price of submitting to a mandatory jab, potentially the first of many future bodily intrusions, is not worth the reward.

For remaining city people who are unvaccinated, here’s hoping we can still find a place in society. I know in the US this is already happening. A school in Miami has advised that it will now only employ teachers who have not had the jab; a store in Canada only allows entry to those who are not wearing masks and are unvaccinated. Sure, it’s easy to say that these people are crazy and their stance is not warranted, but their actions serve a purpose: they highlight nicely the injustice of vaccination apartheid. 

Perhaps liberty sans jab is not an impossible dream. Perhaps we will see new businesses start to pop up in Australia for the great unwashed (and it does seem that those numbers could be significant). I would like to see restaurants that advertise ‘unvaccinated welcome here’ and schools and universities that explicitly state their objection to vaccine passports. If this happens, we may not need to escape to the country. It doesn’t seem likely though. Change is certainly afoot. And we would be wise to recall Socrates’ words: ‘the secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new’ (disclosure: this quote is not from the great Greek philosopher but from a character named Socrates, who was a gas-station attendant in a book published in the 1980s by Dan Millman. Regardless, it holds true.)

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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