In relation to the COVID passport issue, the situation will be analysed from a liberal theory and communitarianism perspective. Using different philosophical models, the analysis will show that by supporting or opposing the measure, the individual is in fact in favour or against a particular political ideology.
First, the issue at hand: a containment measure in the face of the harmful consequences that have been experienced in the aftermath of the global coronavirus pandemic. After a long period of confinement in the Western societies that could afford it, the voluntary isolation of entire communities and the implementation of emergency or alarm measures by states, the COVID passport tool is presented as a requirement to further contain the spread of the virus. Feelings of resentment, responsibility, and even anger have risen around the issue, with every one of them justified based on different conceptions of citizens' freedoms and rights.
Figure 1: UNICEF - Photography of sanitary emergency
The liberal analysis of the debate offers a somewhat complex view of the issue to be studied. Starting from John Rawls' theory of the Difference Principle, it could be argued the mere fact that there is a citizenry in an unfavourable position with regard to the virus is reason enough for state measures to be adopted. One measure is the implementation of the COVID passport as a containment tool against the threat of this organism (Sandel, 2016). The problem arises when an analysis of the hypothetical agreement, which according to Rawls should be adopted in a situation of ideal equality, is made. In this case, if the contracting parties were unaware of the infection, all of them would presumably be in favor of annulling the obligatory nature of the COVID passport, insofar as it infringes on the individual autonomy.
The case can be illustrated by an example: if an arbitrary person finds themselves in a dispute and do not know whether they are infected or not, they will indubitably have to consider taking precautionary measures. They will have to be cautious in case they come across a carrier of the virus. Therefore, they can consider that their own courage in "choosing" is a necessary and sufficient condition to justify refusing this measure. This is possible because the basic conditions of equality, which the government must provide people with, must ensure the autonomy of individuals and their responsibility for social rights and civil liberties. Specifically, the consent and reciprocity of the general, hypothetical social contract that organises collectivities makes them responsible for not infecting others, while at the same time, protects them from infection by others.
This being so, the government should adopt a neutral stance on the issue of the obligatory introduction of the COVID passport. The established civil liberties, inevitably linked to a primitive agreement on the general welfare of citizens, presuppose the good behavior and the obvious responsibility of individuals in the face of a massive virus such as the coronavirus. Therefore, we can conclude that from a liberal perspective based on Rawls' statements, the requirement of a personal vaccination certificate would be an unfair measure. Despite the possible risks that disadvantaged collectivities may suffer (e.g., workers in the underground economy, health workers, etc.), an individualistic value is assigned to collective responsibility that considers the subjects to be the ultimate agents of group protection, relying on the right and freedom of each individual to make his or her own choice.
Figure 2: The increasingly well-coordinated global anti-vaccine movement has repurposed itself to challenge the very reality of COVID-19. Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
On the other hand, starting from Hegel's ideas and taking refuge in the ideas of communitarianism (Gargarella, 1999), the outcome of the debate seems to be the complete opposite. A liberal could disagree with what is explained below, arguing about the infringement of universal rights and freedom of decision; to which a communitarian could simply answer that there are obligations that go beyond individual freedom. However, what does this mean? It can be understood by this logical sequence based on communitarian thinking:
Individuals are not born in isolation; they develop in society.
The identity of an individual is therefore shaped by a community.
If the identity of each individual is what defines his or her personality as a rational being, then rational ideas are a consequence of living together.
Freedom is therefore not an individual matter. The concept of situated freedom emerges: it derives from the interpretation provided by the social context; it is not a sovereign act of will.
This situated freedom is the product of experiences, of interconnected and multiple narratives, that shape our personalities and experiences.
The development of the individual, then, depends on the environment, the community, and shared ideologies, traditions, and culture.
Insofar as the individual is conceived as the result of the sum, contraposition and mutability of certain narratives that are shared, collective, and, in many cases, timeless; the subject's responsibility to his or her community, to which he or she "owes" his or her very identity, is thus assumed. What communitarians know as the obligations of solidarity (Sandel, 2016) are born, which respond to the recognition that the history of individual lives is irremediably crossed and bound to those of others. These obligations do not require consent, as in the hypothetical agreements established by Rawls, but take on a more versatile character: they are the unwritten obligations taken on towards one's own communities or collectivities, and special moral responsibilities acquired in response to the own condition of narrativity, as described by Alasdair MacIntyre (Gargarella, 1999). They are more demanding obligations than liberal ones, in that they establish a balance between individual and collective freedoms. Nevertheless, the spark is clear: individual freedom is only possible if collective freedom comes into play and gives way to the former. In other words, people are autonomous beings, if and only if, they develop in communities that allow and enable it.
Figure 3: Famous World War II campaign coming back to
encourage Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccination
Since it is the collectivity that grants particular freedoms, deep respect and care is owed to it and asks for solidarity with the ultimate aim of responding to threats that accuse or persecute that specific community. This being so, from a communitarian point of view, it could be said that the COVID passport measure is fair, because although it does not respond to individual freedoms or universal rights of choice, it does respond to the general good and collective freedom, which precedes the former.
And then, where to stand?
Sandel, Michael (2008). Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? United Kingdom: Penguin PG.
Gargarella, Roberto (1999). Las teorías de la justicia después de Rawls: un breve manual de filosofía política. Barcelona: Paidós Ibérica.
Figure 1: UNICEF - photography of sanitary emergency. Available on: https://www.unicef.org/romania/press-releases/despite-disruptions-unicef-delivers-critical-life-saving-supplies-over-100-countries
Figure 2: The increasingly well-coordinated global anti-vaccine movement has repurposed itself to challenge the very reality of COVID-19. Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. Available on: https://theconversation.com/covid-19-a-global-survey-shows-worrying-signs-of-vaccine-hesitancy-148845
Figure 3: Famous World War II campaign coming back to encourage Americans to get COVID-19 vaccine. Available on: https://www.reviewjournal.com/life/health/selling-the-covid-19-vaccine-to-skeptical-consumers-2310307/