“We’re all healthy,” she shrugs, sipping a flat white. “Why would we get an experimental drug when we’d likely fight Covid off no problem?”
The mum whose name I can’t remember has just told me she’s not been vaccinated. Not her and not her husband. Should the chance arrive, her kids won’t get it either. She says all this, this woman I know only vaguely, as though she’s saying she forgot to buy milk. It’s idle chit-chat. Unashamed, throwaway, an informal interaction on a park bench while our kids play.
I’m eager to argue back, but instead I extricate myself from her company. Because what I really want to say isn’t for polite company, and I’m still trying to work out how impolite one can be in that situation.
Or rather, I was. Because a few days later, Jennifer Aniston answered the question for me.
“There’s still a large group of people who are anti-vaxxers or just don’t listen to the facts. It’s a real shame,” the actress told InStyle last week, presumably fully aware of the maelstrom she was about to unleash.
“I’ve just lost a few people in my weekly routine who have refused or did not disclose [whether or not they had been vaccinated], and it was unfortunate. I feel it’s your moral and professional obligation to inform, since we’re not all podded up and being tested every single day.
“It’s tricky,” she added, “because everyone is entitled to their own opinion – but a lot of opinions don’t feel based in anything except fear or propaganda.”
Aniston has 37.7 million followers on Instagram. She must have known the anti-vax crew would come for her in the comments, filling her feed with their personal choice mottos. Still, she doubled down, posting a lengthy response to her critics in her stories on Thursday.
“If you have the variant, you are still able to give it to me,” she wrote. “I may get slightly sick but I will not be admitted to a hospital or die. BUT I CAN give it to someone else who does not have the vaccine and whose health is compromised (or has a previous existing condition) – and therefore I would put their lives at risk. THAT is why I worry. We have to care about more than just ourselves here.”
Well, if I didn’t just wear out my clapping hands emoji…
If you’d have asked me a few years ago about my own beliefs, the term pro-choice would have featured heavily. It still would, in a fertility sense. But the way in which the phrase “my body, my choice” has been co-opted by anti-vaxxers of late makes me apoplectic with rage. Because when it comes to vaccines, there is no individual choice. It’s safety in numbers, or no safety at all.
If you opt not to be vaccinated because you’re healthy, you’re denying someone else the opportunity to be protected by the society around them. You can put forward all the counter-arguments you like, but in the end, all you’re really saying is “I’m alright and screw the rest of you.”
I understand that viewpoint might sound harsh. But unlike some more vociferous voices on this topic, I’m not basing my opinion on something I read on Facebook.
When my son was tiny, he was critically ill, every common virus leaving him vulnerable to life-threatening illness. As a result, I spent a lot of time in Great Ormond Street Hospital and now I can’t hear a vaccine discussion without thinking of the countless kids there still battling conditions that leave them immune-compromised. I don’t have to wonder how their parents feel about the ‘my choice’ argument being used to justify greater risk to their children. I know.
I think, too, about my type-one diabetic partner and my immune-compromised friend, about the mate whose mum is going through cancer treatment and about my neighbour, a doctor who’s spent the last 18 months working under unimaginable pressure. I also think about my gran, one of 153,000+ people to have died of Covid in the UK.
I think of all those people, and I think about the risk of new variants being boosted by every vaccine denial, and I want to scream with uncharacteristic rage. And then I wonder – is it really surprising that people don’t trust a vaccine being heavily promoted by a government that’s done nothing to earn their trust?
The cost of libertarianism
Boris Johnson might be pro-vaccine, but he and the anti-vaxxers have much in common.
Both claim to be libertarian, as though that can justify their every move. Johnson’s individualistic streak has been cited countless times over the last 18 months as his government made misstep after misstep in the name of personal freedom, delaying lockdowns and pursuing a herd immunity strategy, removing the requirement to wear masks indoors and only afterwards suggesting they might still be a good idea after all.
Johnson’s is the sort of libertarianism that comes with limitations built in, applicable only to people like him. It’s the freedom to cross county lines when everyone else is being urged to stay at home. The freedom to turn a pile of money into a bigger pile of money for you and your friends while all around you, households lose their incomes. It’s the freedom to dodge isolation requirements and cite a pilot scheme that only seems to apply to your pals, to deny kids free school meals while ordering yourself £27k worth of organic takeaways in lockdown, or to hang gold wallpaper at a time when countless others are losing their homes.
It’s selfishness as a moral standpoint and it’s as contagious as Covid – so perhaps it’s no surprise an increasing cohort of people are turning to the cult of self, where looking after number one is the key priority at all times. It leaves me wondering, am I directing my anger at the wrong individuals?
The right to choose
I wish I had the answers, but all I really know is this: until we have a government that will prioritise its people over profit and power, responsibility for the safety of our communities is down to us.
So, like Jennifer Aniston, I will be choosing to protect those I come into contact with to the best of my ability. If I know you’ve not been jabbed, I won’t be coming to your house or arranging playdates with your kids, supporting your business or nodding politely at you in the park instead of telling you why I think you’re very, very wrong.
Sure, it’s your body and your choice. But I have choices too – and I choose community.