The Phoenix Editorial Board and the author of the piece have issued apologies regarding the editorial process of this article. Since the original publication of the piece, mentions of Orthodox Jews in this article have been modified to ultra-Orthodox Jews for the purposes of factual accuracy.
Through a miracle of modern science, humanity developed a veritable arsenal of vaccines against COVID-19 less than a year after the virus emerged for the first time. These vaccines —in particular the ones in use in the United States— are highly effective and extremely safe, and it’s no surprise that a small but growing group of educational institutions (including Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Brown, and Northeastern, to name a few) will be requiring all students to get vaccinated in order to return to campus next Fall. Swarthmore should join them and require everyone on campus next Fall to get a COVID vaccine before or immediately after arriving on campus. Furthermore, with the exception of a very small group of people that medically cannot receive any vaccine, Swarthmore must mandate vaccination for all of its students, faculty, and staff — no religious or philosophical exemptions.
The right to freedom of belief is a bedrock principle of our society, but it is not absolute. Religious and personal freedom is not a license to perform human sacrifices, abuse children, or deny service to gay people; likewise, it is not a free pass to be a plague rat. Outbreaks of measles in 2019 (concentrated in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, which tend to be opposed to vaccinations) led to over 100 hospitalizations, mostly young children. To be clear, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and all other religious communities, have the right to live in accordance with their faith. (Also, remember that ultra-Orthodox Jews are a tiny minority of Jewish Americans, and anti-vax ultra-Orthodox Jews are an even tinier fraction of said minority.) But their resistance to vaccines harmed not only themselves but the community around them. 10% of measles cases in the 2019 outbreak were in vaccinated people, and it is only through sheer luck that the outbreak merely caused a few dozen hospital stays instead of what would have been easily preventable deaths. In this case, the balance between freedom of individual belief and the good of the community comes down firmly in favor of the latter.
Also, it is true that access to COVID-19 vaccines may have been limited — particularly for international students from countries where vaccine distribution is slow or nonexistent. But this is all the more reason that Swarthmore should provide a mandatory vaccine to any arriving student, faculty, or staff member who has not received one by the beginning of the fall semester. Even in an environment of relative vaccine scarcity, the college managed to acquire 1,750 vaccine doses, and by August, the US will be practically swimming in vaccines. Obtaining enough doses to vaccinate any international students on arrival at Swarthmore should be no more logistically difficult than running the flu vaccine clinics we have every year. The regrettable fact that some community members will have faced barriers to access is all the more reason that the college should flex its considerable institutional muscle to provide them with life-saving vaccines.
When we return in the fall, the campus will in all likelihood be back to normal. The vast majority of the campus population will be vaccinated. But depending on nationwide rates of vaccine hesitancy, the surrounding community may not be as safe, and odds are low that COVID-19 will be truly eradicated in the US by the time we return to campus. This will not be a problem for most of us — the vaccines in use in the US entirely prevent hospitalization and death, are effective both at preventing disease and preventing transmission, and even with no other mitigation measures, the chance of any outbreak spreading to more than one or two people would be effectively none. But even if most people are vaccinated, those who are unable to receive a vaccine will still be defenseless if they happen to come into contact with another unvaccinated person. If we fail to make vaccinations mandatory for every single community member who is able to receive one, then we force the most medically vulnerable members of our community to play Russian Roulette every time they step into a classroom or a party, hoping that none of those present are part of a small group of vaccine objectors (a group that skews white, wealthy, and privately educated).
As a community, we have all made a myriad of compromises: the Garnet Pledge, remote learning, and a million other things, all in the name of keeping each other safe. Vaccination is our ticket back to the full Swarthmore experience that all of us signed up for, and it is easier and more effective than any of those compromises. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that every single student, faculty, and staff member who is medically able is vaccinated by the beginning of Fall 2021. No exceptions.
A quick postscript: This article was written before the pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution was announced, but it hasn’t changed my opinion whatsoever. The risk of an adverse reaction after receiving the J&J vaccine (about 1 in 1,000,000) is roughly on par with the risk of being struck by lightning, or about a hundred times lower than the risk of dying in a car accident sometime this year. A pause for this tiny level of risk is just another sign that the vaccines are safe and monitored by regulators that are incredibly careful when it comes to your health. Go get vaccinated.
If you are still concerned about safety or have general questions about any vaccine, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org—I’d be happy to try and help answer as a public service.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board.