Vaccine mandates require much better vaccine tracking

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If you think that anti-vaccine tomfoolery is monopolized by Trump-voting Christian fundamentalists out there in the hinterlands, I’d like to introduce you to Jasmine Clifford — a k a “AntiVaxMomma,” a k a 5StarJaziii, a stripper from Lyndhurst, NJ. 

Working with an accomplice and connecting with buyers through Instagram, Clifford sold fake vaccination certificates bearing the imprimatur of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For an extra $250, she arranged for those buying the fake cards to be registered in the New York State Immunization Information System. 

Clifford and alleged accomplice Nadayza Barkley, a clerk at a Long Island medical clinic, face a raft of felony fraud charges, as do their customers — more than a dozen of whom were hospital and nursing-home workers and others working in positions with similar sensitivities to COVID-19. 

Anti-vaccine activism is not only a mania; it is, first and foremost, a scam. It is a racket for cable-news pundits and radio hosts engaged in the perfectly legal business of misleading their audiences about COVID-19 in order to enrich themselves, it is a racket for plague entrepreneurs selling phony miracle cures, and it is a racket for ordinary criminals doing things like what Jasmine Clifford is accused of. 

Everybody loves stories about misbehaving strippers, but this raises a few more serious issues. 

Without belittling the death and suffering that COVID-19 has inflicted on the world, we should in one regard count ourselves lucky in this epidemic: It could have been much, much worse. The vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 survive, most of them without any serious long-term effects, at least as far as we can tell right now. It is very easy to imagine a mutant virus that might have been much more lethal and much more easily transmissible. 

In that sense, COVID-19 might be thought of as a test run — and we are failing the test. 

There are many sensible and well-intentioned people who are skeptical about the value or propriety of vaccine mandates, but even the most uncompromising libertarian among us ought to be able to imagine a situation in which a vaccine mandate would be both wise and proper. And, indeed, we already have all sorts of vaccine mandates for specific populations, from soldiers to immigrants to kindergarteners. If we cannot manage these effectively, we are setting ourselves up for catastrophe when an even nastier virus crops up. 

At the same time, those who are inclined to trust public-health authorities should be able to appreciate how terribly easy it is to abuse the extraordinary measures necessitated by a genuine emergency — to set up Big Brother in a lab coat. 

We need a system under which vaccinations can be effectively monitored. But such a system has to be effective, secure and ethically managed. 

The one we have isn’t. 

If you are shocked that a couple of cynical operators swanning around on Instagram could not only counterfeit vaccination cards but also manipulate state databases, then consider how easy it was for a nobody such as Chelsea (né Bradley) Manning, then a mere private in the army, to raid classified military databases — or how effortlessly Edward Snowden, a relatively junior civilian consultant, defeated the fearsome spookery of the National Security Agency with nothing more than a thumb drive and a bad attitude. 

We don’t even require outside criminals to abuse confidential government data, because we have inside criminals, too: To take one illustrative case, the IRS was obliged to pay the National Organization for Marriage a settlement in recompense for having maliciously leaked its private information for political purposes. Kamala Harris, now vice president, illegally and unconstitutionally used her powers as attorney general in California to try to bully nonprofit groups into disclosing their donor lists in order to facilitate retaliation and harassment of her political enemies. 

Anti-vaccine protesters gathered on the steps of Pennsylvania State Capitol during the Rally for Freedom.
Anti-vaccine protesters gathered on the steps of Pennsylvania State Capitol during the Rally for Freedom.
Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

These are not the people you want to trust with your confidential medical information. 

The anti-vaccine paranoia is part of a generally clabbered and toxic political culture of antagonism toward — and neurotic distrust of — essential institutions. But the problem is that the paranoiacs have a point — there is good reason not to automatically trust the IRS, or the local board of education, or the pronouncements of Anthony Fauci. Not only has such trust not been earned, in many cases it has been forfeited. 

This leaves us in a catch-22: The more trust, cooperation, and honesty we have in our community life, the less surveillance, enforcement and intrusion we need to secure public safety and good order. But the heavy-handedness and dishonesty of those entrusted with the management of our critical institutions has undermined the public’s faith in them — and, instead of trying to correct that through institutional reforms oriented toward credibility and transparency, our social engineers and our expert classes have responded instead with more heavy-handedness and surveillance, and less transparency and accountability. 

The anti-vax stuff is baloney, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. 

The general inability or unwillingness of our institutions, both public and private, to protect confidential data has left the gates wide open, and we’re surprised that there are foxes in the henhouses. The leaders of critical institutions have abused their positions in pursuit of their own private interests while neglecting their public duties, and we’re surprised that the public’s trust in them is so low as to be practically nonexistent. 

The criminal shenanigans of “AntiVaxMomma” and her clients are only a symptom. The disease is institutional decay, a virus against which we currently have no vaccine. 

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