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University vaccine mandate seen as threat

Many American universities have COVID-vaccine mandate. There are two purported justifications for government schools requiring students get vaccinated. First, they want to prevent the unvaccinated from harming themselves. Second, they want to prevent the unvaccinated from harming other people.

Consider whether we should pressure college students in order to protect them against harming themselves. As George Mason economist Bryan Caplan points out COVID poses little danger to them. The COVID infection fatality rate (death rate per infection) for college age students (specifically, 25-year-olds) is 0.01% (1 in 10,000). If the college student is vaccinated, his infection fatality rate is 90% lower. The rate is now 0.001% (1 in 100,000). So far one in three Americans have gotten COVID. So, the numbers should be discounted by the chance that the student does not get COVID. Let us arbitrarily set this at 33%. Crudely, then, the chance of death by COVID then, is 0.003% (3 in 100,000) for the unvaccinated student and 0.0003% (3 in 1 million) for the vaccinated student.

These risks are too small to protect students against themselves. By contrast, the chance of dying in a car crash is 0.01% each year. Yet, universities do not, and should not, push college students to cut their driving way down in order to reduce their chance of death. A safety proponent might argue that it is better for a college student to drive than to be unvaccinated because while the expected cost of being unvaccinated is smaller than the cost of cutting driving way down, the benefit of driving is much larger. That is, driving is a better decision – understood in terms of costs and benefits – than being unvaccinated. Perhaps so.

Still, we should allow people to make imprudent decisions. On average, it is imprudent for an adult to be obese, drop out of high school, have children out of wedlock, or smoke. At non-elite universities, some majors are poor investments, financially and intellectually. Consider, for example, art, education, social work, and theater. Yet we allow adults to major in these subjects. In fact, we subsidize their doing so.

Second, consider whether we should protect college students in order to protect them from harming others. Let us assume that the chance of an unvaccinated college student getting COVID is 1 in 3. The chance of a COVID positive student passing it onto another person is hard to estimate. Let us assume that the student shares a household with a vaccinated 65-year-old, the vaccinated 65-year-old has an infection fatality rate of 0.14% (1.4 in a 1,000) and there is a 20% chance the college student will transmit it if he is COVID positive. The unvaccinated college student has increased the 65-year-old’s chance of death by 0.009% (very roughly, 1 in 10,000). Is this enough risk to require someone get a medical treatment he desperately doesn’t want? Without a general argument, we can’t answer this question. If we can’t answer it, the default position should be against the requirement because, other things being equal, less regulation of our lives is better.

By analogy, if each gun owner were to increase another’s chance of death by 1 in 10,000 – whether by accident, murder, or suicide — this intuitively does not seem high enough to justify taking guns away. The cost-benefit analysis might differ here because people get more out of owning guns than being unvaccinated. More importantly, though, there is something odd about government requiring us to do things on the basis of an economic consideration, at least when it involves our body, and the odds of harm are very small. We do not want the government prohibiting alcohol, fast food, guns, or SUVs, even if it were efficient to do so. We do not want the government requiring poor women who get welfare benefits — for example, cash, food, medicine, or housing – to have to get birth control shots because it is efficient to require that they do so. If divorce, obesity, and transgenderism were contagious – evidence suggests they are – we still do not want such individuals banned from campuses, pressured, or taxed in order to slow the spread of these things. This is true even if such policies are efficient. Perhaps these requirements infringe fundamental rights and COVID vaccine shots do not. Again, though, we need an argument as to why this is so.

There is also the issue of whom we are trying to protect. We might be trying to protect the unvaccinated. However, they assumed the risk and it is hard to see why they deserve protection. We might be trying to protect the vaccinated. This raises the issue of whether there are enough unvaccinated people who have not had COVID and whether the threat these people pose is serious enough to justify the vaccine mandate. If the threat they pose is an additional 1 in 10,000 in chance of death by COVID this looks similar to the gun-ownership case.

An objector might argue that the vaccine mandate is an offer rather than a threat. He might claim that no one has a right to attend college and so in return for the benefit of doing so, the college may require students do certain things. Universities may require a student pass most of his classes, pay tuition, and not walk around naked. The claim is that the vaccine mandate is like these requirements.

One problem with this objection is that if the offer-not-a-threat argument were to succeed, the college could also require students be celibate, refrain from drinking, or stay thin and attractive. That is, there is no stopping point to this argument. Intuitively, universities may not require students or faculty waive fundamental rights — consider those related to free speech, religion, and search and seizure — in return for attending the university. If the right against being vaccinated is a fundamental right, and this is unclear, the mandate would be similarly problematic.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. His views do not represent those of the university. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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