What do the vaccinated owe the unvaccinated?

Niko Malhotra

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Williams community has made enormous sacrifices to protect its most vulnerable, specifically the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Our families have borne economic hardships, we have endured social isolation in lockdowns, and we have altered the very nature of our daily lives through masking and social distancing. Despite the social costs of these measures, these sacrifices were made to “flatten the curve,” avoid overwhelming our hospital networks, and limit the spread of the coronavirus to those most at risk of succumbing to this disease.

With highly effective and safe vaccines widely available and free of charge for every American, however, the ethical calculus of continuing these sacrifices has fundamentally changed. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide nearly 100-percent protection against hospitalization, allowing the most vulnerable of society to live without the persistent fear of becoming severely ill. Nevertheless, ignorance and science denialism have led millions of Americans to reject this life-saving vaccine and allow COVID-19 to spread through their communities. Many argue that the vaccinated should continue the sacrifices we have made to prevent spread among the unvaccinated, but this contention fails to understand how vaccines shift the burden of responsibility from the broader public to the individual.

With vaccination available to every American, individuals must bear the consequences of their own decisions. When someone refuses to vaccinate themselves against COVID-19, they assume the risk of contracting the virus and all of the potential health risks associated with it. Unvaccinated Americans are the ones who are responsible for filling up ICUs around the nation, not those who listened to scientists, health care professionals, and public health officials and got vaccinated. There is a fundamental difference between the public taking measures to protect the health of the vulnerable before life-saving vaccines were made available and forcing the vaccinated to continue following onerous social restrictions to protect the unvaccinated.

Vaccinated people cannot continue to sacrifice normality to protect a segment of the population unwilling to protect themselves, because measures to prevent the spread among mostly unvaccinated people have real and significant social consequences. Social isolation has resulted in higher rates of anxiety and depression. Masking has affected child development in socialization and language learning. Virtual schooling has resulted in significant learning gaps, especially among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. When evaluating the measures best for public health, it is necessary to take into account the impact of the restrictions as well as the burden of individual responsibility. We must ensure that irresponsible decisions by a select few do not impede the promise of freedom and liberation for most Americans.

As a nearly 100-percent vaccinated community, Williams must directly confront this new ethical dilemma. The Williams vaccine mandate, in theory, presents the opportunity to unburden our community from the responsibility of protecting the unvaccinated through prolonged restrictions. Nevertheless, the public health measures that have continued are in fact designed to protect the unvaccinated outside the Williams community and have forced us into another semester of questionable social restrictions. While some argue that these restrictions are necessary to protect unvaccinated children, Williams’ restrictions significantly exceed that of Massachusetts and local businesses and ignore the extremely low risk of COVID for children compared to, say, the flu.

The vaccinated Williams community should not bear the responsibility and burden of the health risk created by the unvaccinated. We must press the Williams administration to recognize this profoundly new dynamic when designing just public health measures for our community.

Niko Malhotra ’24 is from Falmouth, Maine.