Large protests have shaken France and its President Macron, who wants to implement mandatory vaccination for at least health and care staff, firefighters and a number of other professions. Reports that 100,000 attended one protest and 160,000 another indicate that the issue worries not just the usual believers in crude conspiracy theories or far right-wingers. Medical workers, trade unionists, yellow jackets participated actively in the demonstrations. The question of mandatory vaccination is debated in many countries. So what do socialists say to this very tricky question?

We defend the right for all to get vaccinated

We need to start with the obvious: the vast majority of people on this planet are desperately waiting to get vaccinated. Not even in the richest countries all people who want the shot in their arm can get it, leave aside the millions or more accurately billions in the neocolonial world. Less than one in 5 are vaccinated in Brazil, less than 1 in 10 in India — both countries with dramatic death tolls.

So while the question of mandatory vaccination is being raised by many governments mainly in the imperialist countries as a key task in fighting the pandemic, the same attention is not being paid to the far more important issue of how to produce and distribute vaccines to all that need and want them globally. The failure to ensure a high level of vaccination globally increases the risk of virus mutation, which in turn could make Covid more resistant to existing vaccines in the higher-income countries.

Scepticism as a result of failure after failure

We do not support the false claims by the far-right and other trends that ignore scientific evidence to say that vaccines are not effective. At least in the more developed world at least 14 potentially fatal diseases, including polio and smallpox have been nearly eliminated thanks to vaccination.

At the same time, we understand why vaccine scepticism or mere hesitation and doubts about using them is already at significant levels in many countries, and is mixed with legitimate anger and distrust at the ruling establishment and the big corporations in general.

Politicians have been ignoring the need for safe working conditions in the last year, especially in the understaffed and underfunded health sector, now it is the same politicians who are pushing for vaccination. The complete opening up in Boris Johnson’s Britain, even staged as “Freedom day” is just the other side of the coin of the plans for mandatory vaccination in Macron’s France. In Russia, where vaccine take-up has been very low, employers have been told to ensure 80% of employees have been vaccinated or have had the virus and given the right to lay-off without pay employees who refuse. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz summed the attitude up when he declared in July that now, with the vaccine, Corona has become a private issue.

In this way, capitalist politicians are trying to deflect the blame away from the structural failures of their system to control the pandemic, by making the issue one of purely individual responsibility.

In this context, compulsory methods of vaccination are likely to create a significant backlash that will make the goal of mass vaccination even more difficult to attain.

Profits before health

From the first day of the pandemic, governments tried to prevent lockdowns or restricted their scope so that business could function as near to normal as possible. While it is true that in the service sector many small businesses have had to close, big business, many offices, and industry has maintained production. A British study showed that for those working in industry the risk of dying from Covid was more than 4 times higher than for the rest of the population.

During the year they have failed to organise smaller classes, proper ventilation or more staff for education and health. They have left the elderly to die in privately run care homes without the proper staff or equipment. Now their failures continue. In many countries they cannot even organise free and easily available mass testing. In other countries where there is free testing there are proposals to end it, arguing that everybody should get vaccinated — a more than irresponsible approach, given the fact that some can’t or don’t want to get vaccinated, and that even vaccinated people can spread the Virus!

After all these, and many other failures, and in particular their inability to introduce a coordinated, integrated global plan to tackle Covid, governments are now raising compulsory vaccination as the solution to their problem. They are stepping up their propaganda to suggest they want to get us vaccinated for our own safety, so we have a chance to return to “normal” life. Of course, we all like to go on holiday, visit bars, cinemas or parties. But this is just a side effect in the calculation of the ruling classes. Their calculations are based on how to restore normal production processes, and what is even worse, how to do so in such a way as to strengthen national interests in the face of growing international competition.

Health is not an individual responsibility

Unlike Sebastian Kurz and his kind, we think that everyone has the right to health and it is the responsibility of society to provide proper health care. This, particularly in conditions of a pandemic, cannot be simply delegated to become the responsibility of individuals, but requires a committed approach to public health with the provision of the necessary resources for the communication, prevention and treatment on an equitable basis of the virus, and given the global nature of Covid, international cooperation.

Instead, governments continue their hypocritical, money grabbing approach by pressurising health workers to get vaccinated depicting them as irresponsible if they refuse. These are the same people who applauded the “heroes” a year ago, but still are not prepared to sufficiently finance PPE, safety and staff wages.

The lack of serious information, prevention measures including the provision of sufficient PPE, as well as of vaccines is a consequence of how capitalism functions, or rather does not function properly. Over the last decades, essential services like health and education have been increasingly privatized, leaving them short of resources and overstretched.

So while in 1947 the City of New York could organise a huge campaign for mass vaccination against smallpox, even though it had some shortcomings, today the city lacks the infrastructure to even distribute reliable information, let alone implement the vaccination programme itself in time. Where today are the public information campaigns, offered in several languages to give serious and easy understandable information about the virus, protection and vaccination? This should have been the responsibility of a public health service, including company doctors, health and safety committees, shop stewards and of course the trade unions themselves. But in many countries, apart from government press conferences this was left largely to the private media, including such dangerous sources as Fox News and others spreading misinformation and lies.

This situation has not been helped by the inaction of many trade union leaders, who saw the crisis as one requiring ‘national unity’. They helped keep the economy going, instead of fighting for more security with, if necessary, the suspension of production at full pay. This too has helped create a sceptical approach to vaccination.

At the same time there is no trust in the pharmaceutical industry — huge companies that have many times proved how they are prepared to literally walk over dead bodies for profit. This distrust is rooted in the fact that these companies are private and profit driven. The solution is to organise and control the research, production and distribution of medicine and vaccines not by private companies, but by publicly owned and democratically controlled institutions. The argument that it is private profit that drives innovation has been proved false after one of the first vaccines produced was AstraZeneca, developed at Oxford University. There are many other examples. Safety would be better protected and public trust in vaccines would be much higher if produced for public need rather than private profit. The whole pharmaceutical sector should be taken into public ownership under democratic control immediately.

The ruling class exploit every opportunity

But as if the failures of the past year were not enough, politicians like Macron also want to use the question of mandatory vaccination to attack workers rights through the back door, including through pay reductions and even the suspension of contracts for unvaccinated workers.

Over the years, French governments have tried to reduce the rights of workers to protect themselves from sacking. Some attempts succeeded, many were fought back. So while we call for the right for free and easily accessible vaccination for all, we also see how the ruling class wants to use the mood in favour of vaccination to further its own agenda. The biggest French trade union the CGT, as well as sections of Force Ouvriere, while supporting vaccination, are against mandatory inoculation and the use of repressive measures, especially in the workplace against unvaccinated workers. They correctly reject attempts to make workers police other workers by checking if they are tested and attempts by the bosses to get access to the health details of their employees. Workers know that bosses will use such information to sack ill people, and use mandatory vaccination laws to get rid of workers they could not get rid of otherwise.

The same danger applies to the various instruments used to control the movements of people based on ‘health protection’. The ruling class did not invent corona to introduce more restrictive measures and control. But they use every opportunity that the virus offers, especially in the current deep social, economic and climate crises. It knows it will need every possible means of combating the growing opposition to its rule. Already authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Russia are using face recognition systems legitimised to fight Covid to identify and arrest political opponents, while the regime in Myanmar has weaponised the Covid crisis to attack opponents of the military regime.

So while vaccination needs to be offered to all workers, this needs to be communicated, organised and controlled not by the bosses and their stooges but by democratically elected bodies of the workers themselves.

Workers control not business control

The other side to this debate, of course, is the right of patients to be treated and colleagues to work in a safe environment. There are workers, including those in the health sector who either do not want to be, or for other reasons cannot be vaccinated. There should be mandatory testing and the re-organisation of work responsibilities so that a safe environment can be maintained, managed and controlled by elected safety committees.

The arrogant far-right and bourgeois politicians who oppose vaccination do not reflect the concerns of ordinary working people. Their attitude towards children, for example, is based on the idea that they are possessions, with parents having full “property” rights — while we defend the rights of children and their health as part of the society.

Ruling elites have a long history of violating the rights and bodily autonomy of working class people and especially of some of the most marginalised and oppressed sectors of the working class and poor, for example through compulsory sterilisation. This feeds understandable scepticism and needs to be taken into account. At the same time, we understand the pressure from those who, concerned for their own safety and that of their loved ones, support the idea of mandatory vaccination.

These different and contradictory pressures can only be managed in a balanced way if we understand that the state in a capitalist society is not just a representative of the interests of the ruling class, but is ultimately there to maintain control of society. This leads to the conclusion that vaccination and testing programmes should not be left in the hands of the capitalist class, but decided, managed and controlled by democratically elected organs of the working class.

We are convinced, and there are many examples that support our view, that ordinary working people are more than able to understand and organise real alternatives. Democratically elected committees of working class people and experts could not only draw up plans for mass testing and ensuring safety, the provision of staff and resources needed for the health sector but also manage information freed from unscientific prejudices and profit interests.

If workers were themselves organised, and democratically deciding and organising safety in the workplace including full discussions in workers assemblies and the wider healthcare system, there would be much more confidence in the measures used to combat the virus. People would not feel they are being used as guinea pigs to boost the profits of Big Pharma, if the sector was nationalised under democratic workers control. And most importantly, confidence in the vaccine roll-out would be higher as safe vaccines are produced and fairly distributed.

By Sonja Grusch