By Dan Gelernter
If you’re in a high-risk group and you’d like to get the vaccine, go right ahead. I’m not a doctor and I have no wish to advise anyone in the matter — but, equally, I resent people throwing unsolicited advice at me.
I am not in a high-risk group. I’m a young, healthy man. I have probably been exposed to coronavirus (early in the pandemic) and never came down with it. The chances of my getting the virus are extremely tiny, and the chances I’ll die from it are infinitesimal. Further, the Centers for Disease Control has published a paper that found no risk of asymptomatic transmission. So as long as I don’t feel sick (and as long as I stay home if I do) I am not going to give the virus to anyone else in the extremely unlikely case that I contract it.
A friend of mine who is a medical professional points out that the safety profile of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is excellent, and their effectiveness impressive. She says that RNA is transient and unlikely to do harm in the long term. But she also admits that RNA vaccines are new and we do not have a full understanding of what the long-term effects might be.
It is this last point, which seems self-evident to me, that many of my friends dispute my right to consider: We cannot yet know the long-term effects of this type of vaccine. It’s not the vaccine’s fault. The issue is time: There hasn’t been enough of it.
If this were a disease like polio, where the young and healthy were most at risk, I’d get vaccinated in a heartbeat. But with the coronavirus, a young and healthy person is balancing a very low and known risk, unvaccinated, against a probably very low but unknown risk with the vaccine. You can talk all you want about how we’re sure this vaccine is utterly, totally safe—but, if we’re being honest, only time will tell. Only time can tell. Common sense should be enough to make that plain.
And frankly, I find it peculiar that all the people who told me they knew for certain that hydroxychloroquine was both dangerous and ineffective are now equally certain this vaccine is harmless and effective. Since I know they were lying before, their current proclamations don’t inspire confidence. There is a staggeringly massive financial incentive for the drug companies, and a staggeringly massive power incentive for the government, in having a safe vaccine. Even assuming that Big Pharma and the government are always strictly truthful, we might at least acknowledge a degree of confirmation bias may exist.
But in the main, there is simply no significant downside to my waiting to find out if there are long-term side effects. And, yes, I know RNA vaccine technology has existed for some time. But it has never been used on a wide scale before now, and it doesn’t help to pretend that it has.
The combined probability of me both getting the virus and being killed (or even having a severe case of it) is so low that it looks like zero unless you take it out to several significant digits. Judging from my own experience—which I’m entitled to do—I’m at much higher risk of getting an eye infection from the facemask shooting my breath into my glasses. And, really, rebreathing what you just exhaled plus all the microscopic garbage that collects in your mask over a day cannot possibly be good for you or your respiratory system.
If getting the vaccine meant I no longer had to wear a mask in New York or on a plane, that would represent a real inducement. But no such inducement exists. And that would still be a poor substitute for a strictly medical argument for the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. It would at least demonstrate a level of practical confidence in the vaccine which the government has not shown.
Liberty Under Pressure
No doubt many American politicians would love a vaccine passport. In Europe, you can only travel with a binder full of documents and, in some places, a government-issued QR code. This is even less persuasive and less reassuring. With a safe and effective vaccine, governments shouldn’t have to resort to their favorite argument (“do what we want or we’ll ruin your life”).
The government should, in theory, be willing to allay my worries with reasoned discussion and accept whatever conclusion I reach as a free individual. Whether I am allowed to live by the decisions I reach freely within my rights as a citizen, even when a decision may be wrong, is the ultimate test of whether I am a free man or a slave.
But far from being encouraged to make our own decisions, we’re being barred from any real discussion as well, thanks to aggressive media and social media censorship, combined with peer pressure of the sort they used to lecture us about in high school. When I posted on my Facebook profile that I wasn’t planning to take the vaccine, Facebook immediately appended a little message to my post so my friends could get the real information.
But I simply want to know if the vaccine will still look safe a year from now. Can you blame me? Many of my friends could, and did: Some accused me of being a danger to society, some simply thought I was a danger to myself. But, little by little, other friends arrived to point out that no one has a right to badger me into doing what I don’t want to do. That was encouraging. Still, other friends messaged me privately to say they agreed with me but were afraid of saying so in public. That was not so encouraging. Neither does it suggest that we are making an effective argument for the vaccine that doesn’t involve suppression and intimidation.
One wonders just how many people are taking this vaccine because they believe it is a good idea, versus how many have felt pressured into doing so. If the vaccine is not being taken almost exclusively by people who freely believe it’s a good idea—and I suspect it is not—then we’ve got a serious problem that far transcends this vaccine or this health crisis.
“Science” is very popular these days. It is now defined as “a series of dogmatic principles which cannot be questioned or evaluated.” This is somewhat different from how I remember science being explained to me in school, when it referred to precisely the opposite concept: Having a testable hypothesis open to revision as new information becomes available.
“Believing in science,” it turns out, is much more about believing than it is about science. It is hardly surprising that it has become a new religion to people who threw away Christianity or Judaism before realizing they needed to believe in something. Invoking “science” with religious fervor as the reason certain precepts are beyond question is, I think, more dangerous to society than my own desire to wait and see how safe the vaccine is.
But I’m open to persuasion. Go ahead, change my mind.
Daniel Gelernter is an author, artist, and entrepreneur who splits his time between Connecticut and Manhattan. He studied music at Yale University and writes about the arts, culture and politics for a number of publications.