Jab Your Ethics

I am a fully vaccinated pragmatic anarchist agroecologist and I want to explain how I got here to help those who, like me, have a healthy skepticism for authority and a strong ethic of care and responsibility for others, as you make important decisions around vaccination against COVID-19.

I had my first baby in 1999, and like many new mothers, I struggled with the often conflicting array of information around everything from co-sleeping and breastfeeding to whether and when to vaccinate. The internet was still pretty new, but there was already a lot of information available in a horizontal peer-to-peer manner unheard of until the World Wide Web democratized information sharing. For a curious well-educated Earth mama type, the internet seemed like a gold mine of ‘alternative’ information that suited my anti-establishment ways, but also fed my confirmation bias when I let my guard down.

In my pre-natal research, I learned the importance of vaccination for public health—that we protect everyone, but especially our most vulnerable, by creating herd immunity with vaccines. I also started reading about adverse vaccine reactions, and as I grew Oscar inside my very own body I struggled with what seemed like an unacceptable trade off to protect public health—other people that is—by knowingly injecting something into my healthy baby that carries a small but frightening risk of injuring or even killing him. I read scientific papers and natural parenting websites, hung out in online chat rooms, and talked with all the mothers I knew about what felt like the most overwhelming and important first decision as a parent.

The vaccination schedule called for the first shot to be given for Hepatitis B before we would even leave the birthing centre, a disease primarily transmitted through unprotected sex or sharing needles. At two months, another raft of vaccines were on the schedule for DTP (diptheria, tetanus, and pertussis/whooping cough), polio, and Hib. At four months, three more jabs. At six, three more. At 12 months, the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and a Hib booster. At 18 months, two more shots. By the time Oscar was 18 months old, he would have had 14 separate injections to vaccinate him against eight diseases. To a new mother, that can sound pretty alarming.

The situation was made worse because in 1998 a report was released by Wakefield, et al claiming that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. I went well down the rabbit hole reading everything I could to find out how serious this risk would be for my baby. A disproportionate amount of self-selected material from the natural parenting genre told me vaccines are dangerous. The scientific literature mostly said they carry very low risk of adverse reactions, but the risk exists. Scientific reports also demonstrate repeatedly that vaccines save thousands of lives every year, and that when vaccination rates go down due to the spread of scary misinformation, illness and death rates go up.

The Wakefield report was found to be fraudulent in 2010 (stripping Wakefield himself of his license to practice). In spite of its fraudulent influence on my and thousands of others’ thinking, I managed to read enough diverse and credible sources on vaccination to come to the decision to vaccinate our children, albeit at a slightly delayed and more spread out schedule. This was informed by the privileged fact that I stayed at home with our children in their first years, and they were not put into child care or any other crowded environment where illness spreads readily. The vaccination schedule is written to ensure all children have access to vaccines to account for a diversity of living situations, including child care attendance or a low-income parent’s capacity to readily access maternal and child health services in the early years.

It is also designed to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities—First Nations Peoples, immuno-compromised, pregnant women and babies, the elderly, and low-income communities who disproportionately suffer from underlying health conditions—are protected by broad herd immunity achieved by vaccinating those of us able to be vaccinated.

My decision to vaccinate our children was both well and poorly informed by the ‘research’ I did. My research was really just a survey of the literature—the scientists had conducted the medical research and reported their findings. Anti or pro-vaccination literature written by people without scientific training is rhetorical at best, fraudulent at worst. Even this piece I’m writing for you now is not trying to make a scientific argument, I’m sharing my story to offer the moral, emotional, and pragmatic steps I took to decide to vaccinate that led me to my second Pfizer jab today to protect myself and others in and beyond our community against COVID-19.

Back in 1999, as I weighed up the risks to my first baby against the risks to many more people in an unvaccinated population, I came down on the side of the public good. I rejected the individualist concern that would put my or my baby’s interests ahead of the collective. I did that for everyone, but especially for the vulnerable, because I also knew that although my children were privileged to have a healthy stay-at-home mother obsessed with organic produce and cooking three times a day, that is not many other peoples’ reality.

Kombu-merri woman and philosopher Mary Graham talks about the difference between the survivalist ethic of settler society and the relational ethic of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. While I think the survivalist ethic is fairly self-explanatory, the relational ethic embraces complex kinships with other humans and also the non-human world, beginning with the Land from which we all come. A custodial ethic is born of this complex understanding of relationality—how we are all related to everything—and it leaves no room to look after oneself at the expense of others. The collective of human and non-human actors and Land is more important than individual concerns.

The burden of colonial disease started with smallpox and currently manifests as COVID and a plethora of non-communicable diseases preventable by ensuring access to secure and safe housing, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food, right livelihoods, and no history of inter-generational trauma. Colonisers brought the smallpox and in some cases intentionally spread it to eradicate Indigenous Peoples here in Australia and other colonized countries—genocide via disease transmission amongst other violent means.

Voluntary refusal to vaccinate is to my mind a continuation of the colonial legacy of lack of care for the First Peoples of this Land. It signals a level of privilege that you have a choice whether to protect yourself from the dangers of COVID by staying safe at home or otherwise in low-risk environments, unlike the essential workers in health care, meat processing facilities, and supermarkets.

Here at Jonai Farms, we’re in a very safe and secure environment with limited exposure to areas likely to host infection, and we are all double vaccinated. Our values and decision making that prioritise justice, equity, and health for all made the choice to vaccinate inevitable. We talked about our early nervousness about a new vaccine for a novel coronavirus and accepted that it was a normal emotional response to a global pandemic, and that we should all be vaccinated.

For some people, mistrust of authority is a driving motivation against vaccination. I have spent a lifetime fighting against government overreach, and engaging in ‘anarchist calisthenics’—I cross the road against the light when there is no traffic in long sight, and I may choose to ignore rules when there is no material impact potentially inflicted on others. I have devoted my life to lobbying governments at all levels from local to global to bring about reforms so that everyone can live in an ecologically-sound and socially-just world.

At the same time, I conform with laws that protect the public good such as speed limits and preventing foodborne illnesses by following a stringent food safety regime in our on-farm butcher’s shop. We do things the government tells us to all the time, but the government shouldn’t even have to tell us to protect our fellow travelers on this earth with the tried and true practice of getting vaccinated against deadly diseases if you can.

And while I’m not here to dump data on this discussion, the rates of illness and death amongst the unvaccinated as compared with the vaccinated speak for themselves. The risk of adverse reactions to the vaccines are far lower than the risk of contracting COVID or suffering serious complications, and to suggest otherwise is wilfully misleading in the face of the overwhelming global evidence since March 2020. If the risk to you personally is low, think about your grandparents, and think about Aboriginal People in remote communities. Think about the man having a heart attack or the child who was in a car accident on their way to a hospital overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID patients. Nobody is expendable.

I am a fully vaccinated pragmatic anarchist agroecologist, and I hope this helps more people to get over fears or mistrust of authority, and to put others in and beyond your community first.