Ideology and immorality of opposing vaccination

Ideology and immorality of opposing vaccination

By Emrah Maraşo,

Editor-In-Chief of monthly science and utopia magazine Bilim ve Ütopya

“After England, Geneva was the first to practice smallpox inoculation which is so difficult to introduce in France and which nevertheless will be introduced, although a number of our doctors still fight it, as their predecessors fought the circulation of the blood, emetic, and so many other incontrovertible truths and useful practices.

D’Alambert wrote the above lines for the Geneva article of the great work Encyclopedia, organized by the great French writer Denis Diderot. In those years, Geneva was among the leading libertarian countries in Europe. Although it distributed the smallpox vaccine, the state’s attorney general had another great writer’s books, Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ and ‘the Social Contract’, banned. France, on the other hand, was keeping a distance from the vaccine during these years, but despite the pressures, the ‘enlightenment’ movement, which “was organized like a political party” and valued science, managed to make its voice heard in various forms. This voice would echo first in 1789 and then in 1793. The echo of ’93 would be mainly inspired by the voice of Rousseau, whose books were banned and burned in Geneva, and the revolution would abolish all obstacles to reason, free science from being an occupation of aristocrats, would pull it out from reliance on  the patronage of monarchs, and make it a public affair.

The French Revolution began by regulating weight and length measures, switching to the metric system. Then the revolution fused the science that’s foundation, the effects of which were seen in military schools, alongside the opposition academies of England, founded Ecole Normale Superieure, Ecole de Medecine and Ecole Polytechnique. Pasteur was to graduate from the Chemistry Department of the first of the mentioned schools, the Ecole Normale Superieure. This great scientist, studying at an academy of revolution, would become one of the pioneers of the revolution in medicine. This revolution was the first systematic theoretical step towards eradicating the diseases that pestered a significant part of humanity for centuries, but such historical leaps did happen all of a sudden: things progressed by accumulating, and under favourable conditions, qualitative transformation occurred.

Great people were also the subject of these leaps. The smallpox that D’Alambert mentioned was the most striking example. In ancient China and India, smallpox was recorded in written sources in 1122 BC, and traces of the disease were detected on the mummified body of V. Ramses’ who died in Egypt in 1156 BC. Turks have already been practicing a traditional method of treatment against this disease for a long time. According to this, they kept the pus they took from the wound of a sick child for a while and applied it by scratching the arm, or any part of the body, of those who were not sick, and they achieved immunity.

Lady Mary Wortlay Montagu, wife of E. Wortley Montagu, who was appointed as the British ambassador to Istanbul in 1716, wrote in her letters that this method was carried out in a festive atmosphere, in the countryside, and called it the vaccination realm”. She herself had her child vaccinated with this method. Smallpox began to appear in Europe from the 6th century onwards and took the lives of 200,000 to 600,000 people each year. For this reason, the exciting and impressive descriptions in Lady Montagu’s letters showed how important the matter was to a European. However, the fact that the church interpreted the production of medicines against the disease as a violation of God’s command caused trouble for European states. That was the reason for France’s attitude against the vaccine. To solve the problem, states distributed some money to those who agreed to be vaccinated, and intellectuals, like Voltaire, became an example, but it would take another 150 years to break down the prejudices in the medical world! So what happened in the process?

The physician Edward Jenner, who was living in the countryside and probably aware of Lady Montagu’s letters, embarked upon practices based on the ‘science of the people’. It’s been said that Jenner heard a milkmaid saying “I never get smallpox because I had cowpox. I’ll never have a horrible smallpox spoiled face”. Jenner produced a vaccine with pus he received from cows that suffered from smallpox and reported his invention in his 1798 work ‘Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae’. Jenner did not stop there, he also vaccinated the poor for free in the centre he called the “temple of vaccination” which he set up in the garden of his house. Despite this, at Cambridge University, counter-propaganda was held and despised against the vaccine he found in lectures. The Ottoman state, on the other hand, started producing vaccines in Istanbul 5 years after Jenner’s discovery.

From alcohol to vaccine

Engels, one of the founders of scientific socialism, writes from England in the 1840s:

“Predictably, workers drink a lot. Alison asserts that in Glasgow some thirty thousand working-men get drunk every Saturday night, it’s not a small number, of course… On Saturday evenings, especially when wages are paid and work stops somewhat earlier than usual, when the whole working class pours from its own poor quarters into the main thoroughfares, intemperance may be seen in all its brutality. I have rarely come out of Manchester on such an evening without meeting numbers of people staggering and seeing others lying in the gutter. On Sunday evening the same scene is usually repeated, only less noisily.

The labourers, who were separated from their land and became workers with the Industrial Revolution, were living in a miserable state. The socialist leaders of the period described these living conditions vividly. The workers gave themselves up to drinking both to forget their pain and to have some fun. Alcohol consumption was almost like an epidemic… The production discipline of capitalism brought with it, large-scale goals, hence competition and speed at the same time. This has also been reflected in culture, such as eating and drinking habits. While the bourgeoisie was consuming alcoholic beverages “in good manners” and coffee was being a symbol of their vigilance, there were ‘spirits’ left, which had a high level of alcohol ratio, for the working class. So that, alcoholism was one of the main problems of the revolutionary workers’ movement of the 19th century.

The issue was not only addressed in terms of drunkenness. In his article “Down with comfort!” Adler, an Austrian socialist, condemned beer for encouraging workers to be comfortable and plainly stated that they wanted cold-blooded, self-disciplined, uncomfortable workers. Engels and Kautsky, on the other hand, emphasised that, since they are traditional drinks, beer and wine are the main tools of getting together, talking and gathering workers. Engels had attributed the failure of the labours’ movements in northern Germany to the sudden decline of spirits prices in 1830, and noted that victorious revolts took place in the wine countries and wrote that the Prussian state was saved by the spirit drink ‘schnapps’. By saying “Without tavern, for the German proletarian, life is both fickle and unpolitical,” Kautsky made clear that the tavern, the place of drinking, was essential for revolutionary work.

Alcohol didn’t just play a role in the labour movement. It became a tool which also contributed to new groundbreaking science.

In the 1850s, a brewer named Bigo asked Pasteur for help and said that some of the barrels he produced had deteriorated and he came across liquids resembling curdled milk. Studying these, Pasteur concluded that bacteria cause spoilage and that two types of fermentation occurred: alcohol and lactic acid. Thus, Pasteur focused on microorganisms. The second big step took place in 1865. The French industry, that developed in these years, was significantly dependent on silk. A disease in silkworms put production into a major crisis. Pasteur and his team worked hard for months to resolve this situation. According to this, the diseases were caused by a microorganism inside the insect, that is, microbes. The observation and detection of microbes was not new, but Koch, a German village physician, alongside Pasteur, played a significant role in establishing its relationship to diseases. With his experiments against many diseases, especially anthrax and rabies, Pasteur put into practice his germ theory and repeatedly proved it. He positioned bacteriology in its place in the scientific world and made the conservative medical world, which had a great opposition to him, accept his views. Thus, he invalidated the opinions which claimed that life appeared suddenly, that the cause of the disease was sick people, bad smells spreading from the soil or pests. There has been immense progress in efforts to understand life deeply and broaden the historical horizon.

Pasteur and other scientific revolutionaries have shown that the quantitative accumulation of humanity, under favourable conditions, leads to qualitative leaps. Process, which began with the scientific revolution, then with the opposition of the Enlightenment thinkers and the design of a new world, accelerated with political revolutions and merged with the needs of production. This combination required the complete elimination of feudalism on the ideological level. And on the scientific level, the elimination of the fatalism of the conservative approach, a holdover from medieval ideology, was important to the development of a theory of nature and vitality in practice through observation, hypothesis, experiment, evidence, theory; that is, total science… The relative stability of human health was also among the guarantors of the maintenance of the capitalist system. In this environment, the chances of survival of attitudes developed against vaccines were unlikely not only in terms of the needs of the system, but also in terms of the worldview and practical life of the awakening working classes. As a matter of fact, during the same period, the end of typhoid in countries that were industrial centres, the reduction of diphtheria, and the control of cholera, plague and malaria remained at predictable levels proved this to be the case. The existing diseases were the result of living in inhumane conditions of working people and their communal treatment depended not on the interests of the minority but on the division of resources according to the needs of the majority, that is, depended on the continuation of the revolution. In this regard, the example of Turkey is important.

Revolutionary vaccine for Turkey

When the Turkish Revolution triumphed and the Republic was declared, there was nonetheless no heartwarming sight in the country. Of the 14 million citizens, 3.5 million had tuberculosis, 2.5 million had malaria, and 1.5 million had trachoma. Kemalists, who saw the people not as numbers but rather as human beings, said that they were ‘following the path of the French Revolution’, and carried out a great mobilisation and treated these diseases village by village, house by House and carried out vaccination campaigns. Preventive medicine was the main policy. In 1928, the Hifzisihha Institute was established, and in 1930 it reached a level of production that would meet the needs of vaccines not only in its own country, but also in other countries. A law passed in the same year made smallpox vaccine mandatory.

Just as the French Revolution had given new names to the 1400 streets of Paris, whose names had previously belonged to the owners of the Empire or the clergy, turning Louis XV Square into Revolution Square, the Turkish Revolution named the square in the heart of the capital Ankara, Sıhhiye Square, and called the streets behind it ‘Public’ and ‘Health’. In each revolution, the fight continued in the venues and they were turned into the spear of the struggle. Because the revolution was made for people and “The Republic wants healthy generations”! In fact, the biggest vaccine was the revolutionary vaccine.

The ideology of anti-vaccination

The anti-vaccine reaction was expressed mostly in religious frame until the 20th century. Churches and religious institutions in France, Britain and America waged an active fight against vaccination. Even American physician Zabdiel Bylston was threatened with death, his family faced violence and imprisonment. The formation of the cause for vaccination, that is, the maturation of its theoretical framework, was also the result of the struggle with the religious paradigm and was related to understanding the world. The dominance of science was certain, and the return from that point was almost impossible. The fact that the revolutions of the 20th century lasted until the mid-1970s did not raise any issues such as hostility to science or opposing vaccines. However, the return from socialism in the Soviet Union, the revolution drought in western Europe, the maturity of the national liberation movements on a world scale, the occlusion experienced by the productive forces in socialist experiences and the capitalist system’s initiations of attempts to solve its crisis with privatisation led to an attack of the imperialist system and the restriction of labour rights step by step.The social system was a whole and the new situation was reflected in the intellectual field.

Seemingly, ‘the time for great narratives such as science and revolution had passed.’ “Didn’t Enlightenment and the French Revolution pave the way for totalitarian tendencies that led to fascism anyway?” The system was taking steps towards disintegrating both the economy and society and turning them into small, controllable units. It was inevitable that the developments would reach a showdown with science and its achievements.Under these circumstances, modern medicine and traditional methods of treatment seemed equally valuable and appreciated. A concept called epistemic multiculturalism, which identified modern science with the West, approached countries that were oppressed and left behind in the grip of imperialist dependence with a so-called anti-colonial respect.

But what actually happened was that they forbade progress, science and modernity. The peoples of the underdeveloped countries were advised to continue to be servants of their sheikhs, landlords, because the logical consistency of this approach had nowhere else to go. The attack was not only limited to the oppressed nations. There was also a showdown within developed countries. The ideology of neoliberalism and postmodernism, saw science, art, religion as language games and said that they were not superior to each other, and instea belonged in different categories. In this case, religion, for example, could not be seen as a phenomenon that arose at a historical stage for science and could not be studied by scientific criteria. Diseases could be seen as a test of God to his servants for a person whose consciousness is determined by religiosity, and human interventions such as vaccines and medicines could be described as meddling in the work of the creator.

Feyerebend had already justified Bellarmino, the judge of the Inquisition who tried and convicted Galileo, because Galileo would have bad influences on a community that found its own principle of order in the church. Or, depending on postmodernism’s claim of rejection and transcendence of objectivity, vaccination could mean being subject to authoritarian tools of power such as reason, science, medicine, and the loss of freedom. After all, the body and desires were the primary criteria of freedom. As a result of this ideological climate, a distrust of Science using some false articles written for the purpose of being scientific but later withdrawn from publication (such as the claim that“vaccines lead to autism”), the rapid circulation of ideas which are decorated with conspiratorialism without any evidence on the internet and those, who hold academic titles and betray the scientific truth for the sake of career and money, the vaccine argument arose.Of course, medicine monopolies, the capitalist health system and lifestyle have a serious role in the development of this insecurity, it is absolutely undeniable. But resistance should not be based on targeting science, but on transforming the system. German Chancellor Merkel’s speech in December of last year is important in terms of revealing the needs of humanity from the most authorised mouth of one of the most developed countries in the world:

“I believe in the power of the Enlightenment. I believe that Europe is where it is today thanks to the Enlightenment and to the belief in the fact that there are scientific findings that are real and should be followed. I decided to study physics in the GDR [East Germany]… I did so because I was quite certain that you could abolish many things, but not gravity or the speed of light or other facts.”

Today we see that claims about “the end of history” and full realization of the unipolar world are no longer tenable. We live in a transitional phase in which “grand narratives” will again show their existence in history. Arguments and pains are indicative of this. The Enlightenment is entering the agenda of humanity rapidly, with the updated and learned form of science and revolution, but without compromising the main lines. Our duty is to make contributions that will pave the way for this development. Anti-vaccination ideology is a pointless and absurd campaign for millions who are fighting for bread and work while taking care of their health. Thanks to vaccines, an estimated 2.5 million deaths per year are prevented. Two million children die annually due to lack of vaccination.

As Brecht said ”You can’t dress their naked bodies by talking.” No one can take away the right of people to heal, live and socialise by talking. Sociality and cooperation are the main motivations of morality human beings. Especially in epidemic periods, this fact is decisive.


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One response to “Ideology and immorality of opposing vaccination”

  1. Ferid Oge says:

    We all agree that the anti vaccination is absurd especially if the safety and relaibility of the vaccine is guaranteed. However, if the safety of the vac is not guaranteed, if there are unknowns for long term side-effects, it is absurd to force people to get vaccinated. Although I had more than 20 shots in my life, I do not want to take a vac which is not safety proven and with many unknowns. The health industry is not transparent and sometimes they manipulate the facts on adverse side effects of the products. Unfortunately, there are serious concerns about the pandemic vacs. One of the vac method was considered to have severe side effects at a significant rate within the tested people. Suddenly, within a year, they perfectioned the vac and some people wants forced vaccination even though they do not accept any responsibility for the side effects. We should ask what happens if there is a severe side-effect for 1% of the population?Is a cheap and reliable solution exist? Do they accept a cheap and reliable solution? Do somebody try to make money from this opportunity?

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June 2021