It is only a matter of time before we turn on the unvaccinated

Nick Cohen
·5-min read

It is easy to see how the pandemic could lead to class and racial strife by imagining how the UK will stand in six months’ time. The vindictive will start to describe Covid as a sickness of choice. Its victims will be victims of their own stupidity. They might have accepted vaccination. They might have protected themselves and others if, as seems likely, vaccines limit infections.

Rational people will ask why they should continue to accept restrictions on their freedoms because of ignorant delusions. Employers will demand to know what possible argument there is against allowing the owners of pubs, airlines, restaurants, hotels or holiday homes to demand proof of protection when immunity passports might save their business. To make it personal, how would you feel come the autumn if someone you love contracted cancer and the NHS delayed treatment because it had to look after needlessly ill Covid patients?

The poor suffer disproportionately from Covid as they suffer disproportionately from everything else. But it could soon be a sickness of poverty. In Birmingham – the only city to have produced detailed statistics – just 60% of people over 80 accepted the jab in Alum Rock, a deprived and racially mixed part of the inner city, while 95% accepted it in Sutton Four Oaks, an overwhelmingly white commuter suburb. Public health workers told me of their fears, but said they could never speak their minds in public. So let me spit it out for them. If good citizens who have taken their jabs, see poor white people, ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews, black or south Asian men and women, they may remember the stories about anti-vax illusions and cross the road or move down the bus to avoid them, or refuse to hire them or provide them with services.

We have been lucky that to date the public faces of the anti-vax and Covid-sceptic movements have been upper-middle-class white men. Laying into the likes of Piers Corbyn and Toby Young is a pleasure as much as a journalistic duty. The only prejudice you worry about fanning is a legitimate aversion to over-indulged cranks. How long this relaxed state will last as demands to punish the unvaccinated grow is another matter.

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The right supplies one answer to vaccine apartheid. It opposes immunity passports as a step on the road to a dictatorial society where we won’t be able to work or play without some functionary demanding we produce our papers. Conservative fears aren’t wholly neurotic, but they should not allow their myth of the freeborn Englishman to fool them into believing that the majority of the population won’t welcome passports as a route out of lockdown.

The right cannot go further than rejectionist opposition because all attempts to stop Covid-19 becoming an endemic infection involve a reordering of society. There are hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, undocumented migrants in the UK. As Gracie Bradley of Liberty pointed out to me, Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for migrants makes them frightened of visiting vaccination centres. When the NHS shares data with the Home Office and immigration enforcement, they have every incentive to stay away.

Since he was mayor of London, Boris Johnson has toyed with offering an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Conservatives and many others hate the idea because it rewards migrants who broke the rules. But the practical arguments for regularising the position of countless thousands who dare not report a crime, appear in court as a witness, or protect themselves and wider society by agreeing to a vaccine should crush all doubts. An amnesty is essential, and now would be a good moment for the prime minister to find the backbone to take on the Conservative core vote, assuming he has a backbone to find, that is.

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Theresa May's 'hostile environment' for migrants makes them frightened of visiting vaccination centres

The housebound, the homeless and many people with severe mental and physical disabilities need vaccinations to come to them because they cannot or do not know how to reach NHS centres. In short, they require a bigger NHS and stronger state, not the minimal state of Tory dreams.

Yet when all the nice social democratic proposals have been offered, the fact of wilful ignorance remains. As so often with conspiracy theories, the endorsement of elite charlatans is vital to its spread. Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to cover up the failure of the European commission to supply vaccines with the false claim that the Astra-Zeneca inoculation is “quasi-ineffective” for older people has fuelled anti-vax sentiment across the continent, and will lead to many preventable deaths.

Extreme religious elites are less visible but no less calculating. I spoke to workers at Migdal Emunah, a charity that fights forced marriages and child abuse in Haredi Jewish communities. I could not understand how religious leaders could accept a Covid infection rate nine times above the UK average. They told me what I should already have known: theocrats would do anything to avoid legitimising the scientific worldview. Once they allow modernity in, once they accept that the works of men are superior to the commands of God, their control of the mind and body, particularly of women’s bodies, would be at risk. Better to tolerate death and sickness than allow the rotten structure to fall.

The left is usually blamed for failing to take on reactionary ideas in minorities. But if it is crippled by liberal guilt and the demands of electoral expediency, then the right, or parts of it, is simply indifferent. It doesn’t know about the conflicts in minority communities and doesn’t see the need to know either.

Doctors and, to their credit, government ministers, understand they must allay people’s fears. There’s nothing wrong with reaching out but at some point they will need to take on the propagators of fatally fake news with more vigour. If they do not, we will be in an intolerable position. The poor, among whom ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented, suffer the greatest health inequalities. During the pandemic, they disproportionately risked their lives in frontline services, while experiencing the highest death rates. As the pandemic slows down, they will continue to suffer the highest death rates along with new variants of the old plagues of racism and snobbery.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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