When I taught in the law school of William and Mary, I would begin every semester with a simple but essential question: What is a law?
My classes were always advanced classes with second- and third-year students, many of whom were about to begin professional practice. In answering the question, most would begin their definition with redundancies, that the law is a set of rules, but that would only invite the question of what is a rule, and few could enunciate the true nature of what constitutes a law.
So, I would eventually turn them to my definition: “A law is a statement of public policy to which the sanction of public force can be applied.”
I would then focus upon the heart of the definition — “public policy” — and ask what must constitute that phrase. Then, in a short period of time, we would list its synonyms: public beliefs, ethics, morality, necessity and other concepts of what we believe are the principles that are necessary to hold us together as a community.
It is important that our system of laws must be embraced on two levels. First, a law must work in the practical world. Second, it must be accepted as being a good and necessary thing that balances the needs of the individual and the commonweal.
Enter the coronavirus of 2019. COVID-19 was identified as a serious and contagious disease that originated in China and expanded worldwide. In March of 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic that had spread to every corner of the world, and with fatal effects.
On Sept. 20 of this year, the Johns Hopkins Health Data Center reported more than 228 million confirmed cases and 4.7 million deaths across almost 200 countries. The U.S., India and Brazil have seen the highest number of confirmed cases, followed by the U.K., Russia and France.
In this country, we have experienced 670,443 deaths from 41,888,298 reported cases of the disease.
To our great fortune, as the pandemic spread, it was essentially matched by the genius of responsive medical research. During the calendar year of 2020, research was begun on an international scale and, before the end of the year, a vaccine was announced and marketed to thwart the disease.
“The COVID-19 experience will almost certainly change the future of vaccine science,” says Dan Barouch, director of the Vaccine Research Center at Harvard Medical School. “It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources are committed. It has also shown that the development process can be accelerated substantially without compromising safety.”
COVID-19 vaccines are effective in protecting against severe disease and death from the virus, including the delta variant. The CDC has announced that primary effectiveness against exposures is greater than 92 percent, and in the less than 8 percent of cases when post-vaccinated infection occurs, the symptoms are reduced, and immunity becomes greater when the patient recovers.
There are some members of the population who are “anti-vaxxers,” contending that requiring vaccination is an abridgement of personal liberty or that there are medical contraindications of being vaccinated. However, any serious consideration of the counter arguments leads to a conclusion that they are specious claims of liberty that, if given credence, would lead to greater disease and deaths. Or their arguments are an embrace of superstition over science; no credible scientific data has been developed to rebut the overwhelming facts that vaccination saves lives, prevents disease and limits suffering.
Isn’t that what our public policy should be, and should we not pursue those laws that save lives, prevent disease and limit suffering by the simple and direct mandating of a COVID vaccination?
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.