Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
Last week I dropped my son at a college in Southern California. At the parking lot, I overheard a small group of students discuss schedules. A few opted for the online-only option, severely limiting their choices. They claimed to be worried about the long-term effect of vaccines offered – “who knows if it is going to cause infertility or cancer twenty years down the line?” I have every reason to believe this group belongs to an extremely selective cohort studying science and related subjects, thereby alleviating concerns as to their reasoning capacity; it was also obvious that going against vaccines was their own choice.
My wife and I suffered two weeks of hell, simultaneously, early March of 2020, after a diagnosis of COVID though none of us needed hospitalization. Social distancing within our house was unrealistic, we are certain our son was infected at the same time but he never showed any symptoms. Everybody in the family is among the earliest in our age groups to vaccinate and we expect to get boosters when available. All of us mask when indoors outside of our home.
Even after a month-long ordeal through disease and recovery, three of us never shied away from partaking resemblance of a normal within all guidelines in force. I took business trips, but got tested before and stayed at home when back. We took vacations and got tested before every departure. None of our favorite eateries shut down, and we used to go for take-outs even before lockdown. Both adults found securing a business meeting was far easier during the pandemic as nobody can quibble about traffic to escape a Zoom call.
I had two heart surgeries twelve years ago to correct a congenital disorder, I was in my thirties then. Between his parents, our son has every possible health condition in his bloodstream, save HIV/AIDS. Covid-19, bad as it was, is just another disease we took in stride. Growing up in India both adults are used to diseases as ever-present unwelcome guests. That cannot, however, be said for most people we deal with currently. People are still getting used to the persistent nature of many variants of Covid-19.
Smoking offers a useful analogy. Smoking kills almost half a million people in the US every year, thirteen hundred deaths a day. Worldwide tobacco kills more than seven million a year. Secondhand smoking claims over forty-one thousand lives yearly in the US. Still, smoking is generally accepted as an ever-present nuisance. Powerful imagery and PSA’s highlight risks and that helps, still over nearly one in seven of all adults in the country smoked in 2018.
There is no mandate against smoking, nor any shaming of those who choose to light up where they are allowed. Insurance companies can and do, adjust prices based on smoking habits. Private businesses, e.g., buildings, can and do, require smokers to use designated spaces, or not smoke. Commercial flights ban smoking altogether. Individuals can require a tenant, or a roommate, to be a non-smoker. You would wonder how over thirty million people satisfy their urges in the midst of all these, but they do.
There are no protests against an anti-smoking mandate, ever. Because there has never been a mandate not to smoke. We still got the incidence of smoking down drastically over the last few decades.
Choosing to take the vaccine is akin to choosing to be a non-smoker. Choosing not to mask indoors is like lighting up indoors. Based on your perception of risks, and costs associated, you will hopefully choose to not smoke. If you choose to smoke, there is a second-hand cost to people around you – and they will remind you of that. Even then, your choice of smoking remains yours, just like businesses and individuals have right to require you not to smoke inside their premises.
Those bright minds at my son’s college were looking for assurance beyond FDA clearance and they were willing to accept the cost. I could say the same thing of many who are opposing vaccines or masks. It is time the establishment accepted their apprehensions at face value and let market mechanism take over. Just like we drastically reduced smoking habits without any mandate, we should be able to do the same for Covid. Till that happens, the rest of us will get used to incidences of breakthrough infection, just as we do for secondhand smoke. Concurrently we should redouble our messaging, in particular use trust builders like community and faith leaders.
The urge to have blanket mandates reflects our failure to convey risks and benefits in a language people understand and accept. When we impose our shortcomings on the people, we undermine everything we are trying to convey – and that’s exactly what is happening today.