Balancing public health and individual’s cost – Interview with Professor Dien Ho

Dien Ho is a professor of philosophy and his research focuses on philosophy of medicine, philosophy of science, reproductive ethics, clinical ethics, theoretical reasoning, and philosophy of pharmaceutics. He is the director of the Center for Health Humanities. He has taught a wide-range of courses from 750-student logic lectures, to graduate seminars on analytic paradoxes, to healthcare ethics for clinicians. Dien was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States at 13. In addition to his love for philosophy, he is also passionate about cycling and zombies.

What is the impact of the Covid-19 vaccine on the perception of our independence and interdependence? Does it make people feel freer or more restrained?
Prior to the proliferation of the delta variant, I certainly felt that the end was near. We were more comfortable eating out, going to public events, and having friends over. However, with breakthrough cases being reported, it seems clear that the vaccine is not a foolproof armor. I still feel safer and I wouldn’t be teaching in person if my school were not 98% vaccinated. In that respect, the assurance that most folks I encounter everyday are vaccinated gives me some degree of freedom. As you know, there are many vaccine hesitant folks in the US. At this point, both sides are fairly entrenched. As more and more venues and businesses require vaccination, I suspect those who have not been vaccinated will feel even more under sieged. One issue that most Americans don’t appreciate is that the vast majority of the world has been even received a single vaccine. Yet, we have a surplus of them and we are considering booster shots. What do we owe the rest of the world? Is it fair to receive marginal benefits while the majority of the world hasn’t even received any? These kinds of interdependence questions are often not asked by highly privileged American citizens.

And what about the “European green pass”? Do you think it is an Ethical solution? Do you have a green pass in the States?
I think the Green Pass is a wise move. As always, individuals are (largely) permitted to do what they want so long as their actions don’t affect those around them. The refusal to be vaccinated generates externalities—everyone’s risks go up. Of course, we allow folks to do things that generate externalities; e.g., driving for fun while polluting the environment. But, COVID-19 is a different magnitude of risks and harm. There are plenty of precedents to limit individuals’ freedom for public health/welfare. E.g., when folks enter the US, they have to declare if they had been to a farm. The Green Pass is in the same spirit.

Do you think there are other solutions to this situation?
Pandemics attack the social nature of our world. If everyone is isolated, the odds of a widespread infection are low. COVID-19 is dangerous because we need each other. In that respect, whatever solution we come up with, it necessarily disrupts what folks can or cannot do. It limits our interactions with each other. There are plenty of other solutions than Green Pass; the key question is the cost to the mitigation measure. My sense is that the Green Pass does a nice job balancing public health against individual’s cost.

How much does the narration of what is happening with the Green Pass and the way of presenting the vaccination campaign affect the collective and individual response to it?
I don’t know enough of the debate to say anything meaningful. However, my sense is that an argument by parity often works well. If we limit how fast you can drive in the name of other people’s well-being, then surely we can limit other comparable activities.

How is your country overall responding to the Green pass and vaccination request?
Studies have shown that political affiliation is the clearest indicator for the vaccine divide. Those who are on the right tends to be far more resistant to any mandates. Although the issue has been framed in terms of respecting individual liberty, it is clearly an attitude fanned by those who have much to gain. Classic conservative philosophies place autonomy at a high value but the flip side of that is the importance of not imposing cost onto those who are not willing participants. Libertarianism is as much about autonomy as it is about responsibility. I think anyone who takes a minute to think about it would agree. The fact that it has fallen on deaf ears is really a reflection of the tribal nature of the anti-vaccine movement. It is about so much more than COVID and vaccines; it is ultimately about feeling unheard, marginalized, and threatened. When privileges are challenged, it often feels unfair to the privileged.

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