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What Do Anti-Vaxxers and Hunger-Striking Cab Drivers Have in Common?

Around noon Monday, thousands of city workers, many of them emergency responders, took over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to protest the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that would require them to get shots in a matter of days or go on unpaid leave.

October 31, 2021 / 06:52 PM IST
Representative image

Representative image

Around noon Monday, thousands of city workers, many of them emergency responders, took over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to protest the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that would require them to get shots in a matter of days or go on unpaid leave.

Vaccine opposition does not conform to a single ideology, but despite the signs in the crowd heralding the powers of “natural’’ immunity, this was not — as it might have been in Boulder, Colorado, or Sonoma, California — a convening in the name of a strange understanding of “wellness.” This was a rally in which it was possible to witness an agitator blowing cigar smoke into the winds as theatrically as if he were leading a charge with a bugle.

The crowd was racially mixed but skewed male, and that energy — beer drinking, no masks — didn’t sit well with Gisele Delgado, who peeled off to the sidelines on Tillary Street, before the approach to the bridge. She represented a brand of vaccine resistance that suggested the complexity of the movement — a refusal that would seem to have little to do with the vaccine itself.

The mandates are partly about protecting the municipal workers and largely about protecting the collective good. The problem, of course, is a widespread disinclination to serve that good, whether it is fueled by selfishness and ignorance or the sense that one’s contributions to the commonweal have not felt adequately reciprocal. In this case, refusal becomes primarily an assertion of power, a self-interested counterpunch — the only means available to people who believe that their government has ignored them.

A social worker who spent much of the pandemic handling child welfare cases, Delgado has had a rough year and a half. The circumstances she encountered among the families she was visiting became increasingly tense and dangerous during the pandemic. Eventually, she took part in a self-defense workshop. “People who would usually stop short of cursing at you would now throw things,” she told me. “We walk into homes where there is domestic violence, and you never know what the temperature of that home is going to be. Anxieties were only exacerbated.”

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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She knew a lot of cops and firefighters, and among them there was still, after two decades, a lingering sense of betrayal around the safety conditions at the World Trade Center in the wake of Sept. 11, something that has played out as a blanket mistrust of public health edicts. Was anyone all that concerned about the well-being of these workers before the pandemic, as they were coughed on and spat at since the beginning of time, Delgado wondered? She wasn’t sure.

Before the pandemic, she ordinarily welcomed vaccination. She and her children were immunized against a full spectrum of maladies, she said, and she was “grateful for the science.” What she wanted now was recognition, for all that she and others have endured, for serving so many vulnerable people over such a long and challenging time — and recognition felt like choice.

On the face of it, the agenda of the anti-vaccination brigade would appear to have little in common with that of another set of protesters who had settled on the Manhattan side of the bridge, in front of City Hall, for nearly a week: cabdrivers conducting a hunger strike in the hope of bringing about an end to their financial catastrophe. But the strains of grievance align in the feeling that the ruling political class has little interest in the dissenting voices of those who form the sturdiest beams of the city’s human infrastructure.

For a long time now, drivers have been fighting for a more forgiving program of debt relief to get them out from under the crisis that has left them with huge outstanding loans for taxi medallions that have collapsed in value — a crisis that has led to bankruptcies, foreclosures and suicides. And to be clear, it was a crisis that was brought about by predatory lending that the city failed to regulate, not to mention the free rein extended to Uber and Lyft. In March, the city proposed offering owner-drivers up to $20,000 to use in negotiations with their lenders. But thousands of these drivers carry an average debt of more than $500,000, which would still leave them with enormous monthly payouts they cannot afford.

According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, even if these drivers worked 12-hour days, six days a week under ideal market conditions — conditions the pandemic has not provided — they would still be unable to sustain mortgage payments in excess of $900 a month, an amount below what the city plan assumes. The taxi union has its own proposal, one that asks the city to guarantee loans up to a ceiling. The plan has the support of New York City’s congressional delegation and Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, but the de Blasio administration maintains that the cost — $90 million a year over the course of many years — would be too great for the city, even after receiving billions of dollars in federal pandemic-related aid.

The irony of course is that this is all unfolding in the waning days of a mayoralty that had committed itself above all to recognising the unrecognised. Many of the signs at the anti-vaccine rally directed anger at Bill de Blasio, leaving you to wonder how a mandate might have played out in the hands of a different mayor, one who hadn’t led with the same premium on imperiousness. In terms of an inclusive approach to policymaking, “this administration hasn’t gotten it,” said Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member from Brooklyn who has been protesting with the drivers.

“Effectively you have an administration that has no relationship to its workers, little ability to understand what they want and what the city needs,” he told me. “Are we valuing the work people are doing — at the end of the day, are they at the table? Because it all happens with them, not against them.”

(Author: Ginia Bellafante)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)

New York Times
first published: Oct 31, 2021 06:52 pm