COVID-19 vaccines and reckoning with the resisters

Please note: this article refers to suicide



In the last few months, I have been speaking to and advising more and more people about their rights in the era of COVID-19. I am increasingly representing people who, on the one hand, are a marginalised voice in public and mainstream discourse and, on the other, are a group expanding in numbers.


My main reason writing this is to emphasise that, based on personal observation, resistance against COVID-19 vaccines is growing.[1] I see ordinary Australians becoming ever more strident and politicised in opposing measures implemented against those who choose not to be vaccinated for COVID-19.


Therefore, businesses must be careful in how they approach their immunisation policies. Moreover, any step – coming from government or business - to introduce COVID-19 vaccine certifications as a condition to accessing events, goods or services, risks substantial blowback. It is my view that businesses introducing vaccine passports will face calls for boycotts and reputational damage.


Growing politicisation


At the start of this year, I began receiving queries for advice about intrusions on freedoms in the form of lockdowns, curfews, and proposed extensions of emergency measures. Those with whom I spoke thought these actions disproportionate to the threat presented by COVID-19. They wanted to know how they could voice their views to those in power, as is their right. So, I drafted letters for them to send to local Members of Parliament, cross-benchers and the like.


This was basic democracy in action; an exercise of our most fundamental rights as Australians. Representative democracy, after all, underpins our Constitution.


I also heard from people who wanted to join protests, sometimes unlawfully. As a lawyer, I am duty‑bound to warn that breaking a law brings consequences. Civil disobedience is not to be undertaken lightly. I see it as morally defensible in quite specific circumstances: upon a personal conviction that a law is unjust and even so the action must be non-violent and non-destructive.


As I entered this space more actively, I saw how COVID-19 was politicising ordinary Australians. This appeared to be on a smaller scale than in other countries (especially in Europe where in places like Holland mass protests occur regularly). Nonetheless, people were enthusiastically making themselves aware of our systems of laws, politics and government and keen to exercise their rights. Sadly, I encountered individuals unscrupulously taking advantage of this growing politicised class by spreading misinformation about pseudo-legal rights, charging for lectures and selling templates of nonsense statements to send to politicians and businesses. I wrote about this in a separate article.[2] I ventured into this space trying to clear up misunderstandings for people and to educate them on their true legal rights.


Vaccines


When COVID-19 vaccines gained provisional approval in Australia, I anticipated (correctly) I would start helping people who did not wish to receive them. This is, again, a fundamental human right. Free and informed consent to medical treatment is a common law right well-recognised in this country, as any Australian doctor should be able to tell you. Rogers v Whitaker[3] is the oft-cited High Court authority for the proposition that a health carer must take reasonable steps to ensure the patient understands the effects of the intervention and consents to it. Later decisions have affirmed that the right of a competent person to withhold consent to medical treatment is absolute.[4]


This right can, of course, be overridden by valid legislation. Public health laws all over Australia empower officials to force a range of actions - including testing and medical treatment as well as detention and movement restriction - in circumstances involving threats to public health. In the past, prominent cases of the use of coercive public health orders featured forced detention of HIV-positive individuals.[5]


I would like to tell you about the people who have approached me to help with their specific situations, usually relating to policies set down by their workplace and education providers. They have deeply‑held views about COVID-19 vaccines.


Their greatest anxiety is that they would be forced to take the vaccine or forego their jobs or education. This anxiety is palpable and should not be downplayed. I heard of one individual (not in Australia) who took their own life out of dread that their employer would force them to be vaccinated.


These people are foremost concerned about the safety of the vaccines: they worry about immediate and short-term adverse reactions as well as longer-term side effects ranging from fears of pathogenic priming when they come into contact with the virus to developing auto-immune disorders. They are nervous about the experimental nature of some of the vaccines and whether trials have been adequate. Unsurprisingly, concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine and the blood clot disorder reaction have reinforced resistance.


While the vaccine-reluctant group is diverse, the subset I know best are the religious and spiritually minded. Their stance on not taking the vaccine is based in faith, not something that people of an agnostic or atheistic mindset can fully fathom. These are not people who will be swayed by government messaging or campaigns.

In addition to concerns about the medical safety of the vaccines, they variously believe that the vaccine will block or slow down their spiritual evolution (whether by design or happenstance) or, more nefariously, is part of an intentional control or depopulation agenda. This is where a wariness of authority comes in which is, in my observation, strong and growing. This is also where the conflation of the spiritual community with the conspiracy community occurs.


Notwithstanding their beliefs, everyone who has approached me for my services presents as rational, pleasant and calm, and above all, due to their spiritual beliefs, kind and compassionate towards others.


My job is to advise them of their rights. I do not take sides in the vaccine debate when it comes to advising clients.


The coming together of belief systems


For me, the confluence of the conspiracy theory stream with spiritual New Agers is a ‘sleeper’ of a political and social phenomenon that accelerated over the past 18 months. Some commentators have been noting the concept of so-called ‘conspirituality’ for years,[6] although media began to pick up on it more recently. I noticed it in the months before the pandemic. COVID-19 united these groups, and events such as the 2020 US election cemented the bond.


Friends who know that I mix with spiritual groups (due to my own spiritual beliefs) have asked me what this community has in common with the conspiracists. It’s not – as some say – that a ‘vast landscape of lost people’ is searching for a ‘belief system to guide their actions’ and have come together because of that shared need.[7] Nor is it as simple as saying that a mutual distrust of authority connects them.[8]


It is rather that spiritual communities have developed and are intensifying in their belief that a rapid and global evolution in human consciousness is occurring right now. According to some religions, we live in a dualistic world. Expanding consciousness has, as its dualistic counterpoint, devolving consciousness. If ‘higher’ consciousness represents a greater connection to Universal, Godhead or Source intelligence, then lack of that connection must also exist. On Earth, this shows up as a clash of light vs. darkness or ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’.


Advanced spiritual thinkers recognise that, ultimately, unity prevails and dualistic concepts are illusory. However, while in the dualistic paradigm, an evolving spirit confronts the efforts of forces operating against it. And how do these counter-evolutionary forces manifest on the Earth plane? None other than as the materialistic, self-serving controllers of the planet, the Establishment, the Deep State … you get the idea.


This is where the rivers of thought meet. And they join up to create a force of individuals actively connecting with each other via social media platforms, prepared to challenge authority if they feel their rights to self-determination are endangered.


What this means for business and government


Legally speaking, most businesses understand they risk being on the wrong side of the law should they impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations on their employees. Without going into the details of employment law, a key question is whether this would comprise a lawful and reasonable direction. Employers who also owe a duty of care to vulnerable groups, such as aged care facilities who owe a duty to their residents, have ‘reasonableness’ considerations that differ from other sectors. From what I see, however, right now few employers are willing to enforce mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, although some ‘recommend’ or ‘encourage’ them.


Businesses are waiting for government to take the lead on mandating vaccines (such as occurred with the flu vaccine in aged care facilities). The Australian Government has so far refused.[9] Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the US government is leaving it to the states and businesses to create vaccine certifications or passports (Florida and Texas have banned vaccine apps);[10] Israel has made enormous strides with their ‘green pass’;[11] Denmark has been amongst the first in Europe to introduce the vaccine passport;[12] and the UK government’s plans are painfully taking shape.


Based on what I have written, it should not be a surprise that I do not recommend mandatory vaccine policies, except for businesses with vulnerable clients such as aged care facilities. For businesses in general, there is a risk that a mandatory direction will not be legal, compounded by the risk of alienating parts of the workforce. Reputational risk is also an important consideration.


As for COVID-19 vaccine passports, it would be a brave business or organisation that implements these. It should not be done without surveying the potential reaction from customers and affected stakeholders. Right now, with delays in our vaccine rollout, Australian businesses have an opportunity to learn from experiences overseas. The delays may also see resistance harden with time. It might seem unlikely now in Australia, but the possibility of a backlash is real. As with the whole COVID-19 dissident movement, it is highly likely that the response will follow what is happening overseas, especially in the United States and Europe. I expect the movement to solidify and gather strength rather than peter out.


As well, a broader plea to business is to make the effort to understand all stakeholders. Around our boardroom tables – virtual or real – we should examine our attitudes to anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 protestors to avoid a blind spot. Whilst we may not agree with them, we can’t avoid their reactions. An overly dismissive approach to anything is a risk in itself. Businesses will need to be scrupulously honest with their customers and employees and be prepared to explain any policy they wish to implement that could infringe on rights. Any hint of self-serving, patronising or self-promotional statements will not be well-received.


The experiences of the UK government will be particularly instructive as it has announced plans for vaccine passports at theatres, nightclubs, festivals and sporting events – though the UK Prime Minister vacillated on pubs before withdrawing.[13] Over 70 UK parliamentarians from three different parties have said they will oppose vaccine passports on grounds of discrimination.[14]


In this, government has an invidious task: balancing the wishes of those who see the vaccine as a way back to normalcy and freedom and feel that resisters are selfishly jeopardising this objective, against the most sacred rights of individuals to determine what does or does not enter their own bodies. The Australian government may have taken mandatory vaccinations off the table but vaccine passports as a soft substitute are ethically wrong and politically perilous. They will effectively stigmatise the non-vaccinated, which is an affront to decency and equity. On a practical level, they will serve to alienate an already politically activated group.



I plan to continue working with clients and spiritual communities advising on COVID-19 related rights. Although I don’t agree with all their positions, as a group I respect them for their willingness to defend their beliefs, in the face of opposition and sometimes ridicule. Dissident groups are sometimes portrayed as anti-social and a threat to democracy, but in an important way they are acting as responsible citizens, more so than those who sit back and are willing to be dictated to; who are content not to challenge, reflect upon, prod or examine what is told to them; who do not realise that democracy can die as much from apathy as revolution.


I see these interesting people as a window into a movement towards greater self-governance. There are potholes in the road of course, not least of which is the task of preserving truthfulness and lawfulness in the circulation of ‘unofficial’ information, without the heavy hand of censorship. Their influence will be felt beyond COVID-19 vaccines, into other areas. They may well begin to merge with other groups who demand more autonomy and a louder voice in workplaces and society at large. These people are a galvanised force that is here to stay. They should not be ignored.

[1] My unscientific observation coincides with the findings of a non-peer reviewed study by Australian National University: Biddle, N, Edwards,B, Gray, M and Sollis, K. (2021). Change in vaccine willingness in Australia: August 2020 to January 2021. MedRxiv 2021.02.17.21251957. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.02.17.21251957.

[2] Johns-Putra, G. (12 February 2021). Understanding and debunking the pseudo-legal ‘sovereign citizen’ movement. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/understanding-debunking-pseudo-legal-sovereign-geraldine-johns-putra/?trackingId=vG1Gd%2B9ASIqmNzufCDSURw%3D%3D

[3] [1992] HCA 58.

[4] Brightwater Care Group (Inc) v Rossiter [2009] WASC 229.

[5] The case of HIV-positive sex worker Sharleen Spiteri is an example of extreme use of coercive public health orders against an individual. Ms Spiteri spent more than 15 years under detention (for most of that time, unlawfully) until her death in 2005. See Carter D. The Use of Coercive Public Health and Human Biosecurity Law in Australia: An Empirical Analysis. [2020] UNSWLawJl 5; (2020) 43(1) UNSW Law Journal 117.

[6] Ward, C and Voas, D. (2011). The Emergence of Conspirituality. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 26:1, 103-121. 10.1080/13537903.2011.539846.

[7] Meltzer, M. (29 May 2021). ‘QAnon’s Unexpected Roots in New Age Spirituality’. The Washington Post Magazine. https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2021/03/29/qanon-new-age-spirituality/?itid=sf_lifestyle-magazine.

[8] Evans, J. (17 April 2021). ‘‘Conspirituality’ – the overlap between the New Age and conspiracy beliefs’. Medium, https://julesevans.medium.com/conspirituality-the-overlap-between-the-new-age-and-conspiracy-beliefs-c0305eb92185.

[9] LaFrenz, C and McIlroy, T. (17 February 2021). ‘Aged care workers won’t be forced to get COVID-19 vaccination’ Australian Financial Review, https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/aged-care-workers-won-t-be-forced-to-get-covid-19-vaccination-20210217-p573dg.

[10] Jacobs, J. (7 April 2021). ‘White House Rejects U.S. Vaccine Passports, Skirting Uproar’. Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-04-06/white-house-says-u-s-won-t-issue-vaccine-passports.

[11] Israel Ministry of Health. (17 February 2021). ‘Green Pass, Vaccination Certificate and Certificate of Recovery’ available at https://www.gov.il/en/departments/general/corona-certificates.

[12] ‘Denmark among first in Europe to introduce COVID pass scheme’ (6 April 2021). Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2021/04/06/covid-19-denmark-launches-coronapas-certificate-to-reopen-economy.

[13] ‘What are the UK plans for Covid passports?’ (7 April 2021). BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-55718553.

[14] ‘Opposition grows against UK vaccine passports’ (2 April 2021). Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-vaccinepas/opposition-grows-against-uk-vaccine-passports-idUSKBN2BP0H1.

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