Last year, in the early days of the pandemic, I wrote about a nurse who left her job in fear of COVID-19, causing a brief social-media stir when her video was highlighted by Senator Bernie Sanders’ Twitter account. There has been much water under the COVID-19 bridge since then, but debates over the virus and its effect on people’s lives are as emotionally charged as ever, if not more so.
Which brings us to Dr. Julie Ponesse, professor of ethics at Huron College with the University of Western Ontario, who on Tuesday posted a similarly tearful video (she holds it together until the end) also prompted by the pandemic. Professor Ponesse, though, happens to be motivated not by fear of the virus, but by fear, or at any rate apprehension, about the vaccines. Specifically, she objects to the university’s just-announced mandate that all staff be vaccinated against COVID-19, speaks of the conundrum of being forced to choose between her job and what she deems an unacceptable risk, and frames her situation as a lesson in ethics 101. The gist of her statement is that she fully understands her career to be suddenly ending because she will not be injected with a vaccine she deems to be not proven safe.
Dr. Ponesse is not a crank or a low-information anti-vaxxer. If the video is anything to judge by, she gives every evidence of being rational and well-informed, albeit highly upset. She has simply reached a different conclusion about the risk proposition posed by the vaccines, which are after all being administered under emergency authorization before the normal rounds of testing are completed. The issue I have, though is simple: It’s not clear to me, even from what she herself says, that Dr. Ponesse’s employment was or is actually at stake.
I haven’t found anything documenting what the terms of the vaccine mandate are with respect to anyone’s continued employment. There is a policy regarding vaccination and physical presence on campus, however. The university website includes a press release, a couple of weeks old now, indicating that formerly there was the option to undergo twice-weekly testing in order to be physically on campus. The policy has now been updated to remove this option, “[e]xcept those with medical or Human Rights Code exemption”. The release goes on to say:
Further details and instructions on how to upload proof of vaccination or how to request a medical or Ontario Human Rights Code exemption will be sent to all members of the Western community.
In the video, Professor Ponesse states Western has “suddenly required that I be vaccinated immediately or not report for work”. Based on that wording (and she strikes me as someone who knows how to use words with care), it doesn’t sound like she is liable for dismissal simply because she declines to be vaccinated; only that she is required to not be on campus. Huron College, meanwhile, denies that anyone has lost their job:
University officials deny Ponesse’s claim that she was dismissed.
“While I can’t comment on individual HR matters, I can confirm to you that at this time, no one at Huron has been dismissed as a result of this policy,” said a spokesperson for Huron University College.
Nor does anything in the video indicate Dr. Ponesse has requested an exemption on either medical or human rights grounds, or is necessarily even aware of the option. If there’s anyone equipped to make a human rights case, surely it’s a professor of ethics? With that option on the table, I don’t really see how her dilemma, vaccine versus job, is a dilemma at all. It’s not that I lack sympathy for what Dr. Ponesse is very obviously going through; I simply suspect there’s more than a touch of panic in her reaction.* While her evaluation of the advisability of accepting vaccination at this point isn’t the same as mine, I hardly think she or anyone ought to lose their job over it – not based on the facts I’ve been able to ascertain, at any rate. I can only trust and hope she’ll be back at work soon enough.
While I obviously lack Dr. Ponesse’s qualifications, for my part I don’t think the ethics of the situation are on her side either. There is such a thing as the public interest, and if there’s any case where that needs to take precedence over individual objections it would have to be regarding the spread of infectious deadly diseases. None other than Noam Chomsky took some heat for his recent remarks on this subject:
People piled on him, which they often do, but this time for saying we should insist that people who choose not to be vaccinated be isolated from society. He went on to argue that it’s your right to refuse a vaccine, but then it’s also your responsibility to isolate yourself so you don’t harm others. That makes complete sense to me, and is clearly enough the motivation behind the Western mandate. COVID continues to disrupt our society and set people at one another’s throats. Won’t it be great when this is all behind us?
* In case anyone should suspect some element of misogyny behind my opinion here — flighty women, always flying off the handle — they can go ahead and suspect that if they want. I’ve shared plenty on this blog about my own past panicked overreactions; just read the linked article about Imaris Vera.
UPDATE: She’s on paid leave, temporarily. And she refuses not only to be vaccinated, but even to wear a mask:
Good for the dean, then. Whatever sympathy I had for this lady is now cool reserve — she’s officially setting the wrong ethical example for her students.