Mandatory vaccination: where does the opposition come from?

8 August, 2021

Between yesterday and today there were more than a hundred demonstrations in France against mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers, caregivers and other groups such as firefighters. Across Europe, the media are encouraging the same debate.

Table of Contents

The politics of resistance to mandatory vaccination

In Spain, the growth of infections in nursing homes during the fifth wave has opened the debate on mandatory vaccination of nursing home staff.
In Spain, the growth of infections in nursing homes during the fifth wave has opened the debate on mandatory vaccination of nursing home staff.

The French trade union confederations have jumped on the bandwagon. From the CGT, which has rescued Martínez as an oracle for the occasion, to the Sud union, linked partially to the New Anticapitalist Party which calls for a national health worker strike, they seem to have spotted their opportunity.

But opportunity to do what? The discussion about the mandatory vaccination requirement is straining the workplaces and pitting French health care workers against each other, turning coexistence in hospitals and residences into hell.

In Great Britain, by contrast, where the Parliament approved mandatory vaccination for health workers, NHS doctors are going on strike en bloc for better pay and shifts, against the government’s tiny proposed pay rise.

The British case is significant because there the anti-restrictions and anti-vaccine movement – the angry petty bourgeoisie – is even stronger than in France and gets over 57% support in the polls for its position against mandatory vaccination of health workers. But health care workers have not been swept along and the unions have not dared to try to bring the issue to the forefront.

The arguments against mandatory vaccination

Denialist demonstration in Madrid in August 2020.
Denialist demonstration in Madrid in August 2020.

The first impression is that the arguments against mandatory vaccination must be very clear and touch on issues too heartfelt to be worth wrecking the work environment, the cohesion of the workforces and leaving the -urgent- fight for better working conditions aside.

But no. What we have been hearing over the past week is far from anything like that. “The claims are centered on the rejection of mandatory vaccination in the name of the right to freedom and safety and the right to medical confidentiality,” French local public radio generously assured.

In reality the official union positions are squishy. Martínez (CGT) spoke of workers “not having been listened to”. Those of Sud, made invisible the healthcare situation and the responsibility of the workers in front of the patients while asking for “time.”

“We are not against vaccination, we are against making it compulsory,” said Hervé Karagulian, deputy secretary of the Sud Santé union, speaking to BFM Marseille. “I myself have been vaccinated and I would like my colleagues, who perhaps need a little more time to think, to have time to think and to be able to continue working, even without vaccination.”

Marseille: hundreds of healthcare workers mobilized against mandatory vaccination. BFM Marseille, 5/8/2021

At yesterday’s demonstration in Paris the arguments against mandatory vaccination were really convoluted and contradictory: “I oppose its imposition yet it should be imposed on everyone”, “the government didn’t do enough against the pandemic so now I won’t vaccinate myself”…. But as soon as we dig a little we find the main slogan of the anti-vaccine campaign fanned by Bannonism over the last year as the conclusion of its international campaign of intoxication on the Internet about vaccines: “we are not laboratory rats”.

“I’m not a lab rat” is the kind of comment Elsa Ruillère, a local CGT representative, says she has heard over the past few days. “It took everyone a few days to realize what was going on,” she says. “And then we were contacted by agents who feel increasingly discriminated against. We have the feeling that hospital staff are being blackmailed.”

Montélimar hospital on strike against mandatory vaccination. France 3, 22/7/2021

Where did this come from?

Demonstration in Paris against the Covid Passport and the mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers and other groups in contact with particularly vulnerable people.
Demonstration in Paris against the Covid Passport and the mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers and other groups in contact with particularly vulnerable people.

In fact, the typologies of demonstrators aired by the French press coincide with the various axes of the Bannonite intoxication campaign on the Internet: mandatory vaccination is the first step towards a dictatorship, vaccines are not what they tell us, the real goal is social control and the end of freedom of movement…. Arguments commonplace in the US “alt-right” milieu, but shocking in Europe.

The corollary that mandatory vaccination of workers who interact with people especially vulnerable to the virus, such as those in nursing homes and hospitals, would be “blackmail” is common in the US but is extremely shocking in Europe where there are no libertarian or religious traditions against vaccination. On the contrary, the educational system for decades presented the great vaccination campaigns and the end of smallpox as the greatest achievement of Humanity in its history.

Most importantly: vaccination as a social fact whose outcomes depended on universality – by default mandatory – not as an individual decision. Far from being polemical, for health care providers to advocate mandatory immunization schedules was until recently as obvious and clichéd as a beauty pageant winner advocating world peace. Defending and making the universality of vaccinations a reality, preventing children and the elderly from being left out of the campaigns was part of the social consensus and the professional pride of nurses, doctors and teachers. And not vaccinating one’s own children was considered a moral horror and reason enough to lose parental authority.

This is also why quite a few opinion columns in the French press these days blame the public school. The influence of American conservative discourses is understood according to them as the result of a previous degradation of the state’s ability to impose (French) Republican values on schooling.

Between the elites allowed to be illiterate and all those whose studies have only led them to discredit knowledge, the very possibility of a debate is vanishing.

The rise of the vaccine challenge is contemporary with the massification of schools. Marianne Magazine, 2/8/2021

Something is coming. Evidently the ability of the state to hold social consensuses is no longer what it was and since the 1990s, and especially since the 2000s, when the Internet became a mass phenomenon, the penetration of US ideological waves and fads in Europe has been vastly greater than ever before.

But while that explanation is useful for understanding how the anti-vaccine campaign has been able to impact millions of workers, it is not sufficient to explain why it has persuaded a portion of them, and especially 46% of non-medical health care workers, into believing that mandatory vaccination was undesirable. Either something in those arguments was already present, was part of the mainstream ideology disseminated by the state itself and the opinion machine, or otherwise the spread remains incomprehensible.

The morality of the resistance against mandatory vaccination

Denialist demonstration in Madrid in August 2020.
Denialist demonstration in Madrid last August.

Of course, this is not a French-only phenomenon. The newspaper El País, trying to introduce the debate in Spain, picked up yesterday the statements of a worker of a nursing home in the vicinity of Madrid.

She is 36 years old and has been working for two years in a nursing home in Guadalajara. From December to February they dealt with an outbreak at the center. When she was offered the vaccine, she refused: “I didn’t trust it at all. They gave it to us first, as guinea pigs”. She says that, “as bad as it sounds,” her fear outweighed her concern about the risk it could pose to the elderly.

“You have to look out for yourself, if I’m not well, I can’t work. First I thought about my body and then I thought about my future. I ended up getting it because if I want to work in this I will end up being required to have it.”

The nursing home employers’ associations are calling for mandatory vaccination for their workers. El País. 7/8/2021

Besides the expression “guinea pigs”, which suggests the impact of the Bannonite campaign, what is striking about this is the statement that “you have to look out for yourself”. A spirit similar to the threats to quit the job if mandatory vaccination becomes effective that we hear these days from some caregivers in France. To vaccinate or not, to work or not, they come to say, is an individual matter, the result of a cost-benefit calculation made by each individual. The social nature of vaccination – its only nature – is completely denied.

The readiness of the unions to mimic Bannonite arguments becomes understandable here. For the last three decades they have used a similar argument to degrade and denature strikes. Strikes would no longer be a collective decision taken by an assembly, but the result of the aggregation of individual decisions before a union call, a kind of ballot in which the ballot is replaced by staying at home.

And something even more striking: the denial of the social value of work is taken for granted. It is striking because the health professions were one of the historical focal points of resistance to the invisibilization of social work (in its full sense, not in its care work meaning) being crushed under wage labor.

Evidently when the healthcare bureaucrat is asked about resistance to mandatory vaccination he replies that “patient safety is more important than some people’ moods”, i.e., he protests that the contractor does not get all the dedication he supposedly paid for with salary.

But historically, caregivers, nurses, and even a portion of physicians, asserted the social meaning of their work by claiming it as the answer to a universal need. We saw this in the struggles of health workers during the pandemic around the world and immediately before that in the strikes of emergency workers and emergency services in France.

The refusal of mandatory vaccination as a symptom and moral outcome of the precarization and atomization of paramedical workers

Vaccination rate in French hospitals by occupational groups. Resistance to mandatory vaccination is proportional to the atomization resulting from precariousness.
Vaccination rate in French hospitals by occupational groups. Resistance to mandatory vaccination is proportional to the atomization resulting from precariousness.

So what happened? Certainly Bannonism has been clever in its strategy, focusing on healthcare workers and within these on the group whose conditions were most precarious.

Nurses and caregivers suffer record rates of temporary employment. Those without permanent contracts go from hospital to hospital stringing temporary contracts that rarely exceed one week. The resulting situation, in addition to being physically exhausting, is emotionally and socially so. It is impossible to build relationships with colleagues when you are swapping co-workers every two or three days… even if you then repeat.

For Bannonism they were a “preferred target”. In a context of atomization and loneliness at work, resistance to mandatory vaccination could be attractive as an individual form of resistance against medical bosses, a lying healthcare discourse, rogue administrations, and all that weighs on them on a daily basis and materializes into a physically and mentally draining employment situation.

In addition, because of their numbers, a success allowed Bannonism, in the manner of advertising campaigns, to play on the idea that “those who work in hospitals are suspicious and reject the vaccine”. The rejection of compulsory vaccination is instrumental to this goal.

All it took was for workers to become receptive, to have previously assumed that they were on their own without remission, that colleagues were alien to them, and that the relationship with patients did not weigh on their decisions. In short, that they had made the leap from the isolation imposed by precariousness towards individualism accepted by themselves as something moral.

But this leap is far from obvious. Precarization and atomization, render people weaker in the face of individualism, but do not automatically produce it. Targeting this segment of workers with the success shown in the graph above would have been impossible without a previous “artillery barrage”. The one carried out every day by unions, the opinion industry and the myriad discourses ranging from the cynical idea of freedom sold by the right wing to the no less cynical social justice and the ideology of care of the left.

So what we are seeing under the banner of the rejection of mandatory vaccination is not a sudden, powerful and short-sighted defense of freedoms, but a whole example of how precarization becomes atomization and how it morally and politically destroys workers. Individualism kills by turning those who make it their own into its victims… and those who depend on the latter.

Read also: Individualism Kills, 3/11/2020