Columnist Jay Bookman explores why getting vaccinated as required in Georgia for decades to protect public health is suddenly controversial. In recent weeks Gov. Brian Kemp got in front of TV cameras to insist COVID-19 safety mandates are too divisive. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
Under current Georgia law, “No child shall be admitted to or attend any school or facility in this state unless the child shall first have submitted a certificate of immunization to the responsible official of the school or facility.”
That, my friends, is a government vaccine mandate, and it has been on the books for at least 40 years now. (The list of mandated vaccinations – compiled by the Georgia Department of Public Health, not the state Legislature – covers 11 different diseases.) And while Georgia law allows for religious or medical exemptions to that mandate, it also states quite clearly that those exemptions can be voided “when such disease is in epidemic stages,” as COVID-19 is today.
Every state in the country has some version of that law. However, if you listen to Republican rhetoric, that broad, longstanding, publicly supported mandate means that we have been living under absolute tyranny over these last four decades and didn’t even realize it. Vaccine mandates, we are suddenly told, are unconstitutional, illegal, immoral and any number of other bad-sounding adjectives.
“People are going to revolt,” says Gov. Brian Kemp, referring to President Biden’s mandate on employers to vaccinate their workforce. “Government is only as good as what people can withstand. And if you try to do more than that, you have an uprising, or a mutiny.”
With such words, Kemp and many of his fellow Republicans aren’t issuing warnings, they’re issuing permission slips for a repeat of the type of violence we saw on January 6. They, as leaders, are telling their followers that revolt and mutiny and insurrection are justified, when they ought to be telling them to go get a vaccination and quit their damn whining.
Why, if government can go so far as to strong-arm our children into getting vaccinated, what else can it do? Force us to wear seatbelts? Not smoke in public places? Tell us how fast we can drive, and require us to have car insurance?
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to mandate vaccinations for our children or anybody else. In that perfect world, people would recognize the benefits of vaccination for themselves and others and wouldn’t need prodding from the government to do the right thing, the smart thing, the decent thing. But as we are reminded more and more often these days, we do not live in such a world. The whole premise of vaccination mandates is that we have responsibilities to people other than ourselves, a notion that is increasingly treated as an affront to personal liberty. Once that takes hold, it’s impossible to keep a nation, a community or a society together any longer.
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It’s also truly dumb politics. According to polls, large majorities of Americans support vaccination mandates and mask requirements. They understand that thousands of Americans are dying each week who could be saved. They understand that our hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, almost all of them unvaccinated, leaving little or no resources to treat the rest of us. They recognize that the liberty to go about our daily lives, the freedom that vaccines can deliver, are only possible if an overwhelming percentage of Americans take advantage of the miracles that science has wrought.
But the Republican Party seems blind and deaf to all that. It rejects not just science, but common sense and common decency. Instead, the GOP has become the instrument through which a vocal, physically aggressive and downright hysterical minority attempts to prevent the rest of us from taking the steps that could pretty much end this pandemic.
Such behavior may play well among an increasingly isolated if vocal minority that has considerable influence within the GOP base, but the rest of us are losing patience.
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