The New Yorker:

At the start of the American Revolution, ninety per cent of the deaths in the Continental Army were due to disease. Smallpox was especially devastating: nearly a third of those infected died. General George Washington weighed an Army-wide mandate for smallpox inoculation—a procedure with a mortality rate of around two per cent. The mandate was sure to meet resistance, and could signal to the British how beset the Americans were by illness. Still, on February 6, 1777, he sent a letter to William Shippen, Jr., one of the Army’s chief physicians. If smallpox were allowed to “infect the Army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence,” he wrote, “we should have more to dread from it than from the Sword of the Enemy.” A mandate went into effect, and cases of smallpox plummeted. Washington’s order turned out to be one the most consequential decisions of the Revolutionary War.

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, American leaders have considered the pros and cons of vaccine mandates. Until recently, they’ve held back. Mandates, their role in the Revolution notwithstanding, have been condemned as “un-American”; the covid vaccines are also new, and only recently received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Carrots—lotteries, cash payments, gift certificates—have seemed preferable to sticks. And yet, today, a third of eligible Americans are not fully vaccinated against covid-19. More and more, mandates look like our surest path to normalcy.

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