Over the past one week, there have been riots in the Netherlands and Belgium over lockdowns due to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Authorities blame vaccine hesitancy for the spike.
Vaccine hesitancy across the developed world is fuelling spread of the disease. Frustrated by increasing infections and deaths, some jurisdictions in these countries have announced vaccine mandates.
But mandates, just as with the lockdowns, are being vigorously opposed. In other words, significant numbers of people have refused to take the vaccine, and yet see reasonable restrictions or mandates as an affront to their human rights.
Vaccine sceptics give various reasons for their stance. Some say the vaccines were developed unusually fast and there could be unforeseen serious side effects. Others claim that Covid-19 is a government fabrication meant to control them.
Some sceptics are driven by a nihilistic instinct. The rights-based sceptics argue that it is their absolute right to decide whether to take the jab. Other reasons advanced by sceptics hark back to medieval thinking.
While low levels of vaccination in Africa are attributable to unavailability of vaccines, there are still those who have refused to be inoculated for reasons not dissimilar to those in the West. This is particularly worrisome because our health facilities would be catastrophically overwhelmed should we experience the numbers of Covid cases seen in Europe.
In frustration, some countries in Africa, including Kenya, have announced some form of vaccine mandates. But just as in Europe, those refusing vaccination are also opposed to lockdowns and mandates. Cases are beginning to rise again and there is fear of a devastating fourth wave.
Contrast this attitude to that in some Asian countries like China, South Korea and Singapore. These have high vaccine uptake levels. People here are not so vehemently opposed to lockdowns, wearing masks or vaccine mandates. Not surprisingly, they are also the countries that are the most successful in suppressing spread of the virus.
South Korea and Singapore are relatively functional democracies while China is not. But in all of them, there is a strong sense of community. There is trust that government Covid protocols are well-meant and not some conspiracy. People have faith in medical science. Crucially, they accept restrictions or some inconvenience for the sake of the larger community. In these countries, rights and responsibilities, privileges and obligations, go hand-in-hand.
Over the last two decades, Western democracy has been infected by scepticism about science, cynicism about community, distrust of government, and nihilism. Individual rights, regardless of consequences to others, have become an absolute right.
What an individual feels is the only truth that matters. An individual’s experience, not matter how subjective, is the only factor that counts. This attitude is the biggest threat to Western democracy, not China or jihadists. As we in Africa continue to nurture a culture of democracy and human rights, we must place personal responsibility towards others at the centre of this process.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator