Cracking the whip: On Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates

President Joe Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandates, aimed at improving the U.S.’s odds of beating the rampaging Delta variant, represent a bold move in the face of the ongoing “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. On the one hand, his plan is based on leveraging the power of the federal government to impose vaccine mandates wherever its fiscal heft allows, including for workers at health-care organisations receiving public funds, and for federal government employees and contractors. On the other, the White House’s requirement that all companies employing 100 or more people must vaccinate their workforce or obtain COVID-19 negative tests from unvaccinated employees each week represents the willingness to bring the pandemic battle to the doorstep of America Inc. Even as the U.S. has succeeded in vaccinating around 175 million individuals, nearly 75% of those eligible, it still leaves nearly 80 million from that group unprotected. It is primarily patients from this latter group who are causing hospital ICUs in several States to be overrun. Nevertheless, Mr. Biden’s mandates will impact around 100 million people, nearly two-thirds of the American workforce. While some, especially in conservative circles, have decried the vaccine mandates as violative of liberties, there are likely few alternative options for the U.S. at this point.

Why then is Mr. Biden’s approval rating for his handling of the pandemic crisis slipping? To an extent it might be explained by the fact that Americans are deeply suspicious of federal government policies of an expansive nature, even in the present context. Relatedly, there is perhaps deepening concern regarding the impact that the vaccine mandates might have on business, large and small. For example, the new “emergency temporary standard” of the U.S. Department of Labor requires large employers to give workers paid leave to get vaccinated; failure to do so may result in “enforcement actions”, potentially including fines up to $14,000 per violation. Similarly, federal government employees are now given 75 days to get vaccinated or risk getting fired. There are discussions in policy circles on invoking the Defense Production Act, a wartime measure, to compel companies to manufacture and accelerate the production of rapid COVID-19 tests. Larger entertainment venues must now ask for proof of vaccination or negative tests of patrons; and fines for passengers violating mask rules on aircraft will now be doubled. These are all measures that will impact, even distort, market behaviour, and potentially hit the bottom lines of corporations, but may be a necessary price to pay to bring the catastrophic march of the Delta variant under some control. Mr. Biden will have to grit his teeth and see the mandates through, not buckle to pressure from irate anti-vaccine campaigners and a fuming Wall Street.


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