So I have a question, and let me preface my question by saying I understand that in a perfect world everyone should have the right to choose, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Our actions and decisions have an impact on the people around us. We do not live in a vacuum.
Oh yes my question ….. does an individual have the right to make a choice if that choice has the potential to harm others?
First of all, let me tell you my background is medicine. I have been a doctor for 35 years most of it working in the emergency department of Cornwall Community Hospital. If I wanted to work in a hospital and see patients, in fact if I wanted to be licensed in Ontario I was required to have had certain vaccines and tests to protect myself and to ensure the individuals around me were not in danger from me. So I had my TB test and my HIV test and my Hepatitis B and other vaccines and all of this was shared with licensing authorities so that I could maintain the privilege of continuing to practice medicine. I never questioned this as not only did it make sense in order to prevent harm to my patients and coworkers and protect myself but because it was a mandate from our licensing authorities.
Ok, so along comes the coronavirus and all of a sudden, because of the question being raised surrounding the right to choose to be vaccinated or not, something that I accepted as being beyond my control now becomes questionable. If someone has the right to refuse the covid vaccine why wouldn’t I therefore have the right to refuse my Hepatitis B vaccine. Surely it is a lot more difficult to spread Hepatitis B than it is to spread covid. Hepatitis B is a blood borne virus and is spread by bodily fluids. It is not airborne like the coronavirus.
I understand rights but I also understand responsibilities. As a physician it was my responsibility to get vaccinated against Hepatitis B. How is this different with the coronavirus? Is it my right to refuse to get vaccinated knowing that if I refuse it could potentially lead to harm of another individual . Since the coronavirus virus unlike Hepatitis B spreads so easily, by refusing the vaccine I could be a danger to the community where i worked.
What if I strongly feel that I should not wear a condom during sex. Wearing a condom is like a vaccine in that not only does a condom protect me but it also protects my sex partner from me. Is it my right not to wear a condom and expose my partner to unwanted pregnancy or disease. You might say doesn’t my partner have a choice whether they choose to sleep with me or not? Definitely they have a choice but what if the circumstances changed slightly and it wasn’t a condom that protected my partner it was a vaccine and my partner did not have a choice whether to sleep with me or not because they were a patient I was looking after in the emergency department or a colleague in the lunch room.
So this is the thing that is troubling me and I am trying to get my head around. As I am now retired and no longer see patients I have a choice whether to get vaccinated or not but isn’t there also an element of responsibility here as well. The studies I have read tell me that if I am unvaccinated I am 10 times more likely to get the virus than if I am vaccinated. If I am more likely to get the virus it follows that I am also more likely to spread the virus. I can refuse the vaccine and not protect myself but don’t I have a responsibility to my contacts and community? I have a strong constitution and a healthy immune system and I’m pretty sure if I caught the virus I wouldn’t be in that unlucky 10 percent who get quite ill or die but do I have the choice to say no and put others at risk?
I also know that the virus mutates and could become more dangerous. This is not a conscious effort by the virus to outwit our immune systems. It is a random process. The more people the virus infects the more opportunity the virus has to mutate to something more dangerous, more infectious and more lethal. It’s like a lottery, the more tickets the more chances to win! Getting the vaccine limits my ability to contract the virus so in effect I am denying the virus a ticket in the lottery. So again I’m challenged by the idea of my choice to say no to the vaccine or yes to my responsibility to get the vaccine and in this case limit the virus’s ability to mutate.
What about the risks associated with the vaccine itself? It isn’t perfect but I get the science, I know the vaccine is not voodoo or microchips. The vaccine doesn’t scare me. The vaccine triggers an antibody response and then is gone from my body in a few days. It doesn’t mess with my DNA or effect my ability to have a family. A lot of the initial questions we had about the vaccine have been answered. We have come a long way over the last year. There have been over 7 billion vaccine doses given in 184 countries worldwide and we now have the knowledge and experience to know the vaccine is safe. The vaccine has also been shown to be very effective as it gives an element of protection from a virus that has killed over 5 million people worldwide. Experience with the vaccine over the last year has shown that I am much less likely to get a serious case of covid if I have been fully vaccinated.
Since birth we have been vaccinated for other illnesses for several generations. We have been vaccinated against; polio, small pox, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, mumps and measles to name a few. In many jurisdictions these vaccines have been compulsory in order to travel, to go to work or even to go to school.
Is being vaccinated an individual choice or a societal choice? If me being vaccinated protects others isn’t it my responsibility as part of a community to get vaccinated? Maybe our elected leaders should be making the choice saying enough is enough our health systems are overburdened and too many people have died. It’s time everyone is vaccinated.
Whether our leaders make the choice for us and mandate vaccines or not in the end there are some undeniable facts. First, all our lives since early 2020 have changed dramatically and most of us would say for the worst. I look forward to the day when I can again walk into a bar or restaurant without having my temperature checked, showing my QR code, or writing down my name and phone number. I look forward to seeing smiling faces not hidden by a mask and I look forward to the day when I can meet a friend and without hesitation give them a healthy hug and avoid that difficult moment trying to decide if I bump elbows or fists. I hate being suspicious and concerned every time someone coughs in public or heaven forbid I have to cough or sneeze myself. I want to be free to travel again feeling safe and not being tested every time I want to cross a border.
I ask myself is there a path to get our lives back to normal? Do we have a choice and more than that do each of us have a responsibility to help get us there? The conclusion for me is an obvious one. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I know that 12 months ago there were a lot of unknowns but we have come a long way since the beginning of 2020. We have learned a lot about the virus, the strategies we have to combat it and the effectiveness of the vaccine. In a perfect world each of us have choices but the world is not perfect and we also have responsibilities. Responsibilities like not drinking and driving, teaching your children to look both ways before crossing the street and yes wearing a condom.
It is all of our responsibility to help eradicate the coronavirus. We cannot stand by and leave it to others. We have a choice not as an individual but as a society and there is only one choice to make. It is the choice to return to a normal life. It is the choice to get vaccinated.
Dr. Geoff Heseltine
Retired ER Physician,
Cornwall Community Hospital