By Aaron Kheriaty, MD
The theologian Doug Farrow has written, in the form of a Medieval disputatio, a cogent and persuasive defense of civil disobedience in response to vaccine mandates and other unjustifiable Covid measures. It is entitled Whether There is a Moral Obligation to Disobey the Coercive Mandates. For those familiar with my work over the past year, my full endorsement of his position will come as no surprise. Until recently, I had spent my entire fifteen-year career as a professor and director of the Medical Ethics Program at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine. Last August I challenged the University of California’s vaccine mandate in federal court on behalf of individuals, like me, who had infection-induced (natural) immunity. A few months later, and after twice rejecting my medical exemption request, the University fired me for alleged noncompliance with their vaccine mandate.
It was clear then from more than 150 studies, and it is even more apparent today, that natural immunity to Covid is superior to vaccine-induced immunity, both in terms of efficacy and longevity. Indeed, during the most recent wave, efficacy against omicron infection of the two-dose mRNA vaccines dropped to zero; a third-dose booster raised that—albeit only temporarily—to 37%, still well below the 50% threshold required by the FDA for Covid vaccine approval. By contrast, natural immunity only saw a modest drop in efficacy against omicron and remains well over the 50% threshold. Although vaccine efficacy against severe symptoms initially appeared promising, with time and new variants, it is now clear that these vaccines have failed to control the pandemic.
Indeed, in some highly vaccinated regions, for example, the U.K., Israel, and Ontario, we are now seeing negative vaccine efficacy—that is, higher rates (not just total numbers) of infection among the vaccinated than the unvaccinated. The reasons for this—whether antibody dependent enhancement or original antigenic sin—remain unclear, but the findings are now evident. Even prior to omicron, we knew that none of the Covid vaccines provided sterilizing immunity, i.e., they did not prevent infection and transmission (in contrast, for example, to the measles vaccine). This empirical finding obviated the common good argument that one has a duty to get vaccinated for the sake of protecting others. Our one-size-fits-all mandates also failed to consider the most basic epidemiological facts about Covid, for example, that morbidity and mortality risks of the coronavirus to a healthy child or adolescent were a thousand-fold less than the risks to an elderly person.
Our public health authorities over-promised and under-delivered with the vaccines, squandering public trust in the process. This came on the wake of other failed pandemic policies of 2020, including the failure of masks, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, and most disastrously, harmful lockdown policies, to stop the spread of the virus. Despite all these aggressive mitigation measures, estimates suggest that more than 70% of all Americans—vaccinated and unvaccinated included—have nevertheless been infected with Covid. As I have been arguing for some time now, natural immunity remains our primary way out of the pandemic. Yet our public health authorities continue to deploy the dubious “vaccinated vs. unvaccinated” distinction, rather than the more empirically defensible “more immune vs. less immune” distinction.
Many of our pandemic policies cast aside foundational principles of medical ethics. During the initial lockdowns in 2020, hospitals sat empty for weeks and hospital staff were sent home, as we waited for an influx of Covid patients that did not arrive until months later. Healthcare systems, spurred by perverse payment incentives from CMS, focused narrowly on a single disease: this biased our Covid hospitalization and death counts and effectively abandoned patients with other medical needs. The disastrous fruits of this myopia include an unprecedented 40% increase in all-cause mortality among working-age adults (18-64) last year, most of which was not attributable to Covid deaths. To put this number in context, actuaries tell us that a 10% rise in all-cause mortality represents a once in two-hundred-year catastrophe.
The ethical principle of free and informed medical consent—guaranteed by the Nuremberg Code, the Helsinki Declaration, the Belmont Report, and the Federal Common Rule—was abandoned when vaccine mandates required experimental EUA vaccines. Transparency, a central principle of public health ethics, was likewise abandoned. Along with several colleagues, I had to file a FOIA request to obtain the Pfizer vaccine clinical trial data from the FDA: the agency wanted 75 years to release data they reviewed in only 108 days (the judge has ordered the data release in 8 months). Thousands like me have lost our jobs for declining a novel injection whose safety and efficacy data remains hidden from independent scrutiny.
The scientific method suffered under a repressive academic and social climate of censorship and the silencing of competing perspectives. This projected the false appearance of a scientific consensus—a “consensus” often strongly influenced by economic and political interests.
Social Isolation vs. Social Solidarity
Our ruling class saw in Covid an opportunity to revolutionize how we relate to one another and how we exist in the world. Recall how the phrase “the new normal” emerged almost immediately in the earliest days of the pandemic. This public health crisis offered the ideal pretext for expanding exceptional state powers beyond all previous limits. Our government and public health authorities have still not defined the thresholds for what counts as a public health emergency—the supposed legal justification for burdensome Covid “countermeasures” (a military, not a medical, term), serious infringements on civil liberties, and censorship of dissenting voices. The assumption of emergency powers by both elected officials and unelected bureaucrats continues indefinitely, with little critical scrutiny and no appropriate checks and balances.
The lockdowns of the past two years represented the first time in the history of pandemics that we quarantined healthy populations. Those who benefitted economically from lockdowns—Amazon, for example, and professionals in the laptop class who could easily work from home—lobbied for these untested measures. The working class bore the brunt of the lockdown burdens and saw massive transfers of their wealth upwards, mostly into the pockets of a few ultra-rich tech elites.
Governments initiated these unproven and unprecedented measures with virtually no public debate and without due deliberation about the overall consequences. While the lockdowns failed to slow the spread of Covid, they did untold damage. The carnage included what I’ve called “The Other Pandemic”: the lockdown mental health crisis, which gave us skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, addictions, and suicide—especially pronounced among the young. Prior to Covid we had an opioid crisis, with 44,000 deaths per year in the US from overdose in 2018; last year that number was 100,000.
It turns out that people who are afraid, who are locked down, who are isolated for months behind computer screens are easier to control. A society grounded on “social distancing” is a contradiction—it is a kind of anti-society. Paradoxically under the stay-at-home orders, the highest form of civic participation was framed as non-participation. The specter of asymptomatic viral spread—which never had any scientific basis—turned every fellow citizen into a potential threat to one’s existence. It would be hard to devise a better method to destroy the fabric of society and to divide us.
Biosecurity and Totalitarianism
With vaccine mandates and passports, we are seeing the emergence of a new biosecurity surveillance regime designed and implemented by unelected technocrats. The unholy welding of digital technologies, public health, and police power is leading to unprecedented invasions on our privacy and intrusive methods of monitoring and authoritarian control. In this framework, citizens are no longer viewed as persons with inherent dignity, but as fungible elements of an undifferentiated “mass,” to be shaped by supposedly benevolent health and safety experts. I predict that if these trends do not meet more robust resistance in 2022, this new paradigm of governance will demand increasingly intrusive and burdensome interventions into the lives, and bodies, of individuals.
The marriage of global public health with novel digital technologies of surveillance, personal data extraction, information flow, and social control now makes possible novel forms of domination unimaginable in the totalitarian regimes of the past. Whether we agree or disagree with this or that pandemic policy, this broader development should concern each of us. Farrow describes this perceptively when he sketches the “systemic change otherwise unpalatable to the people” introduced during the pandemic:
That change is in the direction of what the World Economic Forum calls stakeholder capitalism, backed by biodigital convergence, universal surveillance, and technological control of a wide range of human activities, from reproduction to religion. Information exchange, like monetary exchange, is to be monitored and controlled. A social credit system is being devised in which conformity will be rewarded by inclusion and lack of conformity punished by exclusion. What is already operative in China, in other words, is advancing very rapidly in the West.
To see and understand the emergence of this “new normal,” consider as instructive cautionary tales the prior regimes in which the pretext of public safety during an emergency paved the way for totalitarian systems. Anyone who draws a historical analogy to the Nazis is understandably met with the charge of alarmist hyperbole, so let me be clear: I am comparing neither the current nor the previous administrations to Hitler’s totalitarian regime. Still, it remains a sobering, instructive, and undeniable fact that Nazi Germany was governed for virtually the entirety of its existence under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which allowed for the suspension of German law in times of emergency. Recall also the name of the group that carried out the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution: the “Committee on… Public Safety.”
Vaccine passports are merely an early, though significant, step for the emerging biosecurity surveillance regime. As Farrow rightly observes, “We are not dealing with a [pandemic] exit strategy at all, but rather with an entrance strategy for the new Lords of the World.” It is not too early for firm resistance; indeed, with virtually no pushback we have uncritically allowed unjust and harmful measures to advance while meeting no resistance. Our general goodwill and civic mindedness are nullified by misplaced trust and self-protective timidity. Cowardice masquerades as civility. Consider the remarks of the great Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
If only we had stood together against the common threat, we could easily have defeated it. So, why didn’t we? We didn’t love freedom enough. We hurried to submit. We submitted with pleasure! We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.
The hour is later than we think; twilight is near. Continued compliance with manifestly unjust and often absurd mandates will not return us to a normal functioning society. Every good-faith or selfless act of compliance on the part of citizens has only resulted in more illogical pandemic “countermeasures” that further erode our civil liberties, harm our overall health, and undermine human flourishing.
There is a human right not enshrined in any constitution: the right to the truth. I would suggest that no right has been more systematically trammeled over the last two years than this one. Why, I ask, do our public health authorities acknowledge the truth only after the damage from the lie has already been done—only, for example, after tens of thousands have lost their jobs due to coercive vaccine mandates that have not advanced public health? Who will hold our leaders accountable for this malfeasance?
Doug Farrow knows the score and he is correct: nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience now constitute the right and just path forward. At the risk of ending on an apocalyptic note, I join Farrow in maintaining that firm resistance to the point of civil disobedience is not only permissible under the circumstances, but indeed required if we are to prevent this twilight from fading into night.
Aaron Kheriaty, MD, is a fellow and director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Chief of Ethics at The Unity Project.