By Mike Lee

Mike Lee argues that the rights of other people to remain free from harm overrides freedom of choice.

Over the last 18 months, most businesses have had a passive role in New Zealand’s Covid-19 recovery plan. The Government has been calling all the shots and business owners have, for the most part, remained passive recipients of “sit, stay, wait” directions.

While the wage subsidies and resurgence payments have been integral to encouraging compliance, many businesses have experienced a sense of helplessness since the main instructions have only been “stay at home” and “get tested” to, now very clearly, “get vaccinated”.

Many businesses (and people) are itching to do more but feel hamstrung. Not only are they seeing their livelihoods and customer bases steadily shrink over the past 18 months, but the uncertainty of when they can ‘get back to business’ is also weighing heavily on their minds.

Business owners are doers and the constant requests to essentially do nothing (aside from ‘get vaccinated’ and ‘wait’) have left them restless, frustrated, and angry. We see the anger in their irate reactions to rule-breakers and the small minority of people refusing to get vaccinated or who refuse to stay at home.

So, what can businesses and their law-abiding owners (who in part make up the team of five million) do to help the nation get back on its feet?

In this first instalment, I will use some analogies to argue why the debate around Covid-19 vaccination must now shift from freedom of choice to freedom from harm. In the second instalment I will pose some views to the businesses community, and society, to let you, the reader, decide how you could act in the next 6 months.

“My body my choice.” This has been a common argument held by the anti-vaxxers. Well, yeah, but nah not really.

Freedom of choice is fine only when those choices do not harm others. Freedom from harm is clearly also a fundamental right. For example, it might be ‘my body’, but there are legal consequences if I tackle an unsuspecting person. Likewise, it’s ‘my body’, but there are also consequences if I choose to refuse a breathalyser test or run a red light in my car.

There are laws and consequences in place to control what I choose to do with my body, because the rights of other people to remain free from harm overrides my freedom of choice.

Choosing to remain unvaccinated (if you are eligible) can in some ways be compared to drink driving. You might make it home without crashing (i.e. get recover-at-home Covid), you might crash and sustain severe injuries (i.e. get ICU-level Covid) and you might severely hurt someone else (i.e. give someone Covid and/or make it hard for other people to access ICU because it is full of Covid cases).

We have laws that help the police detect and stop drunk drivers and laws that prohibit businesses from serving intoxicated persons because we know those people have the potential to harm not only themselves but, more importantly, the innocent people around them.

Similarly, a person who chooses not to get vaccinated has the potential to harm others around them because: a) not everyone can get vaccinated; b) even a small percentage (six percent) of vaccinated people can still contract Covid-19; and c) unvaccinated people will disproportionally soak up medical resources.

When a vaccinated person suffers from an unexpected medical emergency they may not be able to access care due to an influx in hospital admissions due to widespread Covid in the unvaccinated population. This then violates everyone else’s fundamental right to remain free from harm.

Imagine there are five lifeguards monitoring 500 people on a beach. The lifeguards inform everyone that it is safer between the flags because there is a rip current outside the flags. Now imagine if a rip unexpectedly appears between the flags. This might seem unlikely, but Covid-19, like the ocean, is an unpredictable beast.

So now we have 10 people caught in a rip. Five people did what they were told and swam between the flags, while five chose to swim in a predictable rip outside of the flags. Should the lifeguards prioritise the people who have followed their advice and swam between the flags? Or rescue those who deliberately chose not to take their advice?

I think most people would want the lifeguards to prioritise the people who followed expert advice. We might go further and suggest that the lifeguards should retain capacity just in case more people between the flags get into trouble, rather than spend all their resources going after people who have gotten into trouble outside the flags. Covid-19 is a riptide we know is coming, and getting a vaccine is like heeding advice to swim between the flags.

In fact, Covid-19 is worse than a rip at the beach. An unvaccinated person has the potential to drag others around them (those who cannot be vaccinated because they are too young or immunocompromised) into the rip current.

Is it fair for the lifeguards of our health system to exhaust themselves on people who have chosen to swim outside of the flags, especially if we expect that some people between the flags will need their assistance later? Should our health system make some tough decisions now to ensure there is reserve capacity for people who did heed advice and who did get vaccinated? Would it be unreasonable for society to expect that a proportion of hospital beds and ICUs be held in reserve, for a representative proportion of the double vaccinated population as well as those ineligible for vaccination? Is it logical that only a minority of medical resources should be held in reserve for a minority of people who refuse vaccination?

Sure, “My body my choice”, but only if it doesn’t cause harm by unnecessarily soaking up the limited medical resources that everyone else might need for unpreventable health conditions.

In the next instalment, I will outline the role that businesses can play to help increase vaccination rates.


For more information on COVID-19, head to the Ministry of Health website.

This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Michael Lee is an Associate Professor in Marketing at the University of Auckland. His research interests are in brand avoidance, consumer resistance and activism, and, most notably, anti-consumption.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

See Also:

Covid: why are people so vaccine-hesitant? ▶

Should we be worried about COVID vaccine side effects?