By Josie Appleton
The French Government is introducing a tougher vaccine passport regime today. Now, only vaccination (and not natural immunity or covid tests) will count to allow access to cafes, libraries, sports facilities, and long-distance trains.
The near-hysterical arguments made by the French political class justifying this new pass are strikingly unguarded and reveal the inner dynamics behind the vaccine passport drive. These debates show that vaccines are no longer a simple medical product. Instead, the vaccine has become a way in which states are establishing their authority, and creating a new QR-code citizenship based on regular compliance with medical procedures.
Vaccination has become a test for entry into the civic body. The ‘test’ of the vaccine is not your degree of medical immunity, or the degree to which you stand to suffer personally from COVID-19 infection. (The vaccine pass goes down to the age of 12 in France, while in New York it applies to those aged five and above).
Instead, the new meaning of vaccination is an act of compliance; it is a matter of doing what is asked and expected of you. The French Prime Minister Jean Castex said that the vaccinated have “played the game”, they have done what is asked of them. President Emmanuel Macron said that the vaccinated, “near-totality of people”, have “adhered” or “subscribed” to what they were asked to do. These people are “responsible”. By contrast, it is a “very small” that is “refractory” or “resistant”. They are “irresponsible”, says Macron, and “a irresponsible person is longer a citizen”.
Here, the state claims the right to set conditions for entry to civic life. The question of being part of social life is not a right, but something provisional; it is a permission that is granted by the state. The new gatekeepers of civil society are the waiter at a cafe, the head of a sports club, the door staff at the theatre, who from Monday will not only scan QR codes but check people’s ID cards too.
“To be a free citizen means to be a responsible citizen,” says Macron. “Duties come before rights.” You can only have rights (enter society) once you have done your duty (been vaccinated). The idea that duties come before rights means, at base, that the state comes before the citizen: the citizen only takes his place in society at the behest of the state.
This is not a matter of two shots and you are done. There is an ongoing demand for compliance, whereby your citizenship – and claim to ‘responsibility’ – is continually renewed. France has followed Israel in requiring a booster shot for vaccine passes to remain valid. Currently, you have seven months to get a booster, but this will shorten to four months in February. A French Government guide sets out the exact timetable expected of you: this is a jurisprudence of medically based citizenship. Every injection gives a ‘valid QR card’ that you can use to access social life; if you don’t get the booster in the required window then this QR code will expire. France has also followed Israel with a special offer (available until February 15th) allowing first-time jabbers to “benefit from a valid vaccine pass” after their first dose, so long as they get their second jab within 28 days.
The discounting of natural immunity is very telling. Natural immunity yields a wider spectrum of anti-bodies than vaccination and is likely to confer longer protection against infection and against new variants. And yet natural immunity has no political meaning. It is a strength that your body has gained through its own efforts, without involving the state or wider society. The ‘pass sanitaire’ that had been in operation in France since last summer recognised natural immunity and negative covid tests, alongside vaccination; the new ‘pass vaccinal’ recognises vaccination alone. The French Prime Minister now claims that natural immunity provides “only very little immunity”, while the source of genuine immunity is a “full course of vaccines”. This claim reflects more about the different political value placed upon these two routes to antibodies. One route is deemed “protective”, robust, and the other very weak, as something that “wanes”, only because one has a robust relationship with the state and the other relates to the state “only very little”.
(Indeed, as we saw with the Novak Djokovic saga, natural immunity – and the claim to exemption based on natural immunity – in fact now poses a threat, so dangerous that a person must be imprisoned and deported. Natural immunity poses a threat not to actual public health, but to the new social order based on vaccination that is being built by the Australian government.)
The fetishism of Covid vaccination is at base a fetishism of bureaucracy. The vaccinated person has a pass, they have a QR code; they are on these grounds judged safe. You can feel ‘reassured’ when you are in a public space and everybody has passes on their phones. The unvaccinated person has no card or QR code and therefore they are seen as risky and posing a danger to others. In declining to be vaccinated, they are not merely refusing a medical procedure – with its attendant benefits and risks – but they are refusing to relate to bureaucracy. The absolute power attributed to a vaccine card – to show that someone is safe, to show that they care for others, and are willing to protect themselves and others – owes less to the medical effects of vaccination than to vaccination as an insignia for bureaucracy.
This is why it is repeatedly asserted that only the unvaccinated alone are infectious. The French prime minister says that the unvaccinated cannot be allowed to go around “infecting others with impunity”. He even claims that the unvaccinated intend to infect others, that they think to themselves, “I’m going to infect others.” This belief persists in the face of sky-high vaccinated case rates; in the face, even, of the Prime Minister’s own recent Covid infection.
There is a long history of blaming dissident elements for infectious disease – as with the expulsion of beggars, Jews and prostitutes from medieval plague towns, or in the nineteenth century the association between cholera and revolutionary urban uprisings. Infectious disease has often been associated with elements outside the system or that cut against social or religious hierarchy. Michel Foucault said that the absolutist state saw the plague as “a form… of disorder”, a disease of “rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder”.
Now too, the unvaccinated are seen as the source of all ills of society. The Italian Prime Minister said that “most of the problems we are experiencing today are due to the fact that there are unvaccinated people”, as he introduced a new tougher vaccine pass for Italian citizens on January 10th. The unvaccinated are even, perversely, presented as the cause of repressive instruments designed by politicians. Emmanuel Macron said that the unvaccinated didn’t merely put other people’s lives at risk, but they also “restricted the liberty of others”, which was “unacceptable”. The French Prime Minister said the unvaccinated “put in danger the life of the whole country and restrict the daily life of the immense majority of French people”.
The eight per cent or so of people who have not been vaccinated in France appear to be the single focus of state authority. Macron recently said that his primary aim was to “piss off the unvaccinated”, and that he will continue to do this “until the end”. In his New Year’s message, he urged the unvaccinated to join the fold, telling them that “all of France is counting on you”, as if the course of the pandemic – indeed the very fate of France – depends upon them agreeing to the jab.
The project of improving national health has been replaced by a project of integrating the population into a bureaucracy by means of health status. The health of the nation has become confused with the proportion of the population that has a valid health pass.
The pursuit of the ideology of vaccination at the expense of health outcomes is shown most vividly in the imposition of vaccination mandates upon healthcare professionals. Here, we see the sheer blindness of sacking of experienced medical staff in the midst of a pandemic on the basis of a vaccine that has no bearing on the risk they pose to patients. It also shows how far the notion of the ‘irresponsible’ unvaccinated person is from the reality, given that healthcare workers have given and contributed more than anyone. In French Guadeloupe, vaccine mandates led to a 30% reduction in staff at the main hospital and the reduction of services to a skeleton operation. The scene there now is colonial: black healthcare staff picketing the hospital were removed by white mobile gendarme units, and now there is an armed police checkpoint at the hospital entrance. Vaccination mandates are a test of allegiance for healthcare professionals. Authorities show that they are prepared to run hospitals into the ground, to risk lives, to protect the ideology.
The vaccine passport is a citizenship test for a morally and politically vacuous age. It is entirely passive – it is the simple act of consenting to a medical procedure, after which you are crowned with a civic virtue. This is a citizenship test that occurs on the level of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”; that is, it is a question of merely biological existence, rather than a question of how a life is lived. Receiving a vaccine pass is mute; there are no words, there is no oath of allegiance to party, country or leader. You offer your body and receive a QR code in return: this is the nature of the new social contract between citizen and state. “Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate” is the mantra for reconstituting authority and society in an age where this authority cannot be grounded on a substantial social basis.
The vaccine is being treated as a mystical state or collective substance that incorporates people into the collective body. Vaccination now is like a sacrament, a transubstantiation ritual; through the vaccine we are receiving the body of the state into our body and therefore joining the community.
One casualty in this is vaccination itself. Considered scientifically, a vaccine – as with any drug – is not a protective talisman or means for membership of a community. It is a medical product with particular qualities and uses, and particular side effects and risks. It may be useful for some groups but not others, and in some contexts but not in others. The rational use of a drug is as important as the drug itself, to ensure that it is directed towards the appropriate ends.
The ideological weaponisation of vaccines distorts these cost-benefit judgements. The vaccine is forced upon people who have little or no need of it, such as children and those with natural immunity, while ignoring those who have need of it. (The older and more vulnerable someone is, the less they are affected by vaccine passports.)
This episode is violating the very basis of health and medical ethics. Through vaccination passports and mandates, it has become acceptable to force someone to take a medical treatment, even a treatment that is not really in their medical interest. When Jean Castex boasted that the vaccine passport led to a rise in people getting their first vaccination, the interviewer pointed out “but they were forced”. Castex shrugged. In normal times, medical force is unacceptable; medical force means the Nazis. When France began vaccinating a year ago, it insisted upon consent forms and pre-vaccine interviews to ensure that people were really consenting. Now, the use of force has become entirely acceptable, it has become ethical in fact. It is the duty of the state to get people to do their duty.
And in this, the state is claiming rights over our bodies, the right to say what we put in them and what we don’t. A citizen under the vaccine passport regime is not in fact a citizen at all, but rather a chattel: you sign your body over to the state, and agree to take the latest required treatments in order have your QR code renewed. You sell your rights over your body for the price of drinking a cup of coffee in a cafe.