Are there ethical limits to vaccination incentives?

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The latest outbreak of COVID-19 in Melbourne — which threw the city back into lockdown for the fourth time in fourteen months — has seen a rapid rise in the number of people wanting to be vaccinated. In Victoria and Queensland, the daily numbers doubled; in NSW, there was a significant but less dramatic increase. The reappearance of the spectre of the virus, it seems, was all that was needed to break through the wall of complacency or precaution that many seemed to feel toward COVID-19 vaccines.

This points to a kind of paradox experienced by a number of wealthy, Western nations. A number of approved vaccines began to become available just as the threat of the virus seemed to subside. The lack of felt urgency was then compounded by mixed political messages and media-fuelled concerns over the possible health risks involved with certain vaccines — not to mention the lack of availability of alternatives. Vaccine hesitancy and vaccination apathy seemed thus to conspire to suppress the uptake of the limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines currently available in Australia.

It is little wonder, then, that in Australia, as elsewhere, talk and debate has turned to the issue of vaccine incentives — incentives that range from free doughnuts and coffee, to cash payments, to certain privileges of access to venues or travel (sometimes known as "vaccine passports").

Are there ethical limits to such incentives? Is there a meaningful difference between giving a gift and conferring a privilege? To what extent do incentives entrench the reality of a two-tier society — or, indeed, a two-tier world?

Period10 Jun 2021

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