Universities under Covid-19 Regulations

«Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been in the private sector. They expect results.»
Ray in «Ghostbusters»

Universities in Germany seem to go for 3G in the coming winter semester in Germany — meaning you must either be vaccinated (“geimpft”), having had Covid (“genesen”), or been recently tested (“getestet”). Recently meaning within the last 24 or 48 hours, depending on the test.

Efficacy and Ethical Issues

There are at least two different argumentative strands against this approach. The first is based on efficacy, the second is based on ethics.

In discussing these two strands I am making a few assumptions about Covid. I’ll mention a few, but you find the whole reasoning in this posting. I’m also focusing on vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. With unvaccinated I mean the students who did not get vaccinated and did not have Covid.

Let’s start with efficacy first. Using 3G will not stop the spread of Covid, as the vaccinated spread Covid as well. Thus if the spread of Covid is an issue, then testing only the unvaccinated will not work. After all, vaccinated also transmit Covid, to vaccinated and to unvaccinated students (and lecturers), but they do not have to be tested. Thus, they become — as one person did put it — pandemic stealth bombers.

Given the selective testing, this 3G-regulation will lead to an ostensible pandemic of the unvaccinated. They have to be tested regularly. If there are any asymptomatic Covid cases, they will all be «detected» in the group of the unvaccinated, while all asymptomatic Covid cases among the vaccinated will remain undetected and unrecorded.

Besides the lack of efficacy there are huge ethical issues.

The first one is that the frequent test requirement will put substantial financial, organizational (time, effort), and physiological pressures (uncomfortable tests) on the unvaccinated students. If we take the roughly 14 weeks of the semester, a student has to do 1 to 3 tests a week. After all, the tests are valid for 48 hours, depending on when the student has his courses, the best case is only on one or two consecutive days (1 test per week), the worst case is courses on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (3 tests per week). It is very likely that at least part of the tests have to be paid by the student himself. At a university I know, only one test per week is «free», others have to be paid, and the test center will close at the end of November, meaning the student has to pay all tests himself from December onwards. Besides costing money, the tests also take considerable time (waiting in line, getting the test done, perhaps even verifying the result with the university itself). Not something you want when you have a course early in the morning.

Requiring frequent tests for people without symptoms (which likely aren’t infected) will lead to a large number of false alarms. Students will not be able to study despite being healthy. The funny thing here is that this was mentioned as argument against opening up the university when tests became available. Now this is apparently not a concern anymore. Likely because tests are a means to an end — the end being getting students to get vaccinated (see below).

It is also highly unlikely that this health information will stay private (whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated). The university will check the status of the students and it will be pretty easy to see who is not vaccinated when you see the unvaccinated students standing in line. Given that the topic of vaccinations is emotionally and morally loaded … well. Strange that we make exceptions here compared to other medical information. You could make this easily worse by requiring, e.g., only the unvaccinated to wear masks (giving it a 50% chance that we’ll get this within 6 months).

Besides these ethical issues, I think the largest ethical issue is that students are pressured to get vaccinated. The intention of the university (or rather, the people making the decisions) is «to make the situation uncomfortable for the unvaccinated students» (actual assertion of a university representative in a meeting). When I first heard that assertion I couldn’t believe my ears. That someone says something like this is bad enough, that the university follows through is unconscionable.

I guess almost all people want an end of the pandemic, but this is the wrong way. It interferes with a private health decision («my body, my choice» anyone?). This isn’t putting out flyers to eat more healthily or drink less alcohol, this is making it almost impossible for unvaccinated to study at the university. And if we do this for Covid, what’s next? You can do this with cattle, but not with humans. It also establishes a climate of surveillance and control. And it will not work against Covid — unless the idea is to stop testing and make the pandemic go away this way.

And I’m writing this as someone who likes inoculations and who gets regularly vaccinated against the flu. But this pressure to get vaccinated against Covid is unethical. And it would be a problem even if the vaccinations would prevent the spread of Covid — which they do not. Or if they would work long-term, which they don’t either. Given the high mutation rate, the effectiveness will decrease over time, similar to flu shots. We already have talk about booster shots. This is not only new with unclear long-term effects, it’s also not like a one time measles vaccination, but more like a subscription model.

The whole regulation is just unethical — from forced tests to almost equally strongly pressured vaccinations.

Possible Reasons for ignoring the Efficacy and Ethical Issues

The efficacy and ethical issues with 3G regulations raise the question why it is done anyway. Why pressure students (and lecturers, by the way) to get vaccinated?

In the best case, the ones making the decisions have good intentions — and we all know where that road leads. But let’s assume the best first. They are convinced that vaccinations are the only way back to some kind of (new) normalcy (strange how herd immunity is now a thing). And as someone wrote, if people think they are alive due to a vaccine, it’s hard to see the downsides — you’d want it for everyone. It’s a bit like evangelism. It also explains the fervor for mandatory vaccinations. Yup, there are quite some people who think it’s okay to treat people against their will. In a country that was the impetus for the Nürnberg Code.

It might also be a lack of viewpoint diversity. The ones who made the decision were likely all people who were vaccinated and likely cannot understand reasons against vaccinations. Or they see token-reasons, e.g., irrational fear, stupidity, lack of information, etc. pp. It’s strange that people who reject something are seen as uninformed. Yeah, some likely are — those who are against anything they don’t know. But I’d assume that there is a large group of those who reject the Covid-vaccinations that is pretty well informed, and even more of those who willingly got the shot who did not question it at all (would more information and thought be welcome here?). But yeah, in making decisions, it would have been helpful to have those as equal partners who will not get vaccinated against Covid. I doubt they were part of the discussion.

It might also be a social tragedy of the commons. Perhaps one or more people were against the regulations, but speaking up against it would require them to spend social capital. No matter whether in politics or the university (which can give professional politics a run for its money) social capital is valuable. Why speak up if you have to use favors or — even worse — might lose the good will of those who are strongly in favor of vaccinations. Better if someone else speaks up. The line to cowardice is thin here:

The silence purred at them as Wonse talked. They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought: one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapprove, because at a time like this it behooves all decent men to nearly stand up and be almost heard …
But no-one said anything. The cowards, each man thought.
«Guards! Guards!» by Terry Pratchett

It might also be escalating commitment. If people have invested a lot in the current situation, it’s hard to stop continuing to do it. Especially if these people got vaccinated themselves. You can change your mind, but you cannot change that you have a vaccine in your body. That decision is irreversible — the vaccine will stay there — making it very hard to reverse your position. (Hard but not impossible, compare the transexuals who detransition.)

It might also be (justified) fear of losing research funding. Universities are highly dependent on government money. The federal ministry for education and research funds a lot of projects, and given that the federal government is strongly in favor of vaccinations (well, parties in power are, after all the doses were bought), not pressuring students to get vaccinated likely comes at a high cost. But with university falling in line and essentially requiring vaccinations (unless you have money and time), the government can still claim that we do not have mandatory vaccinations. It’s just delegated to organizations that depend on government money. They make your life uncomfortable if you do not get vaccinated. And it’s not only the threat of losing money — which would be bad enough for the survival of a university — it’s also the threat of increased government regulations if you do not fall in line.

And it might also simply be that the issue is simply seen as too large, too unwieldy, too potentially dangerous (students might die) to do anything different than what others do and the government wants. Personally, I think that would be worst explanation. I think the telos of the university is the search for truth, knowing you will never be sure that you have found it. It’s the job of the university to think critically, to question. This does not mean it has to reject everything, on the contrary. Hopefully, most regulations do make sense. But when they do not, a university has the moral duty to speak out against it. And yeah, at least one university I know has completely given up on that moral duty. A shame.

And yeah, unfortunately, it’s really easy to find excuses not to question and simply accept these regulations. After all, a professor might lose social status or research money, admins don’t want lawsuits in case something goes wrong, docs and post-docs don’t want to risk their next contract, etc. pp. It’s one of the problems with the huge attention focus on Covid infections and deaths. That the later mostly occur with (much) older people is ignored. And I guess, if you compare the number of students who get injured or die in traffic accidents on the way to the university and compare these numbers to the students dying from Covid, you could make a case from prohibiting students from going to the university even without Covid if you apply the same standards.

The funny thing is that criticism against the behavior of the universities in Germany comes mostly from a right-wing political party. In Germany, with its history, «right-wing» is usually automatically equated with «far right-wing» or «extremist». Personally I find this disappointing on multiple levels, especially considering that there is an established political party that ostensibly is for freedom, but which does not criticize infringement on personal freedom. And with only a right-wing party questioning it, it’s easy to deal with this opposition by using the association with far-right-wing/extremist and simply poison the well. No matter how accurate the criticism or how pressing it is.

A Better Approach (from my perspective)

After all that criticism, what would be a better approach? I’d go with «if you have symptoms, don’t go to the university campus but get tested. No matter whether you were vaccinated or not. Otherwise come.»

No one-sided 3G regulation which only tests the unvaccinated, which is ineffective and unethical. But that simple rule. Will it prevent students with Covid being on Campus and spreading it? No. But neither will 3G. And spread of the infection isn’t the issue, death is. And that risk is (at the moment) very low for students, and even lower for those who are vaccinated. Those who are unvaccinated, but could have been vaccinated, have made their decision and now have to live with the consequences — positive (no side-effects) and negative (higher, but still very low, risk of death). The only ones who have a problem are those who want to get vaccinated but cannot get vaccinated, e.g., due to a medical condition. But if I were in that group, and probably even have a higher risk for death from Covid, I wouldn’t go to Campus in either scenario. Under 3G-regulations the chance is pretty high that a pandemic stealth bomber will get you. Under «don’t come when you have symptoms» you might also get infected. There should be other ways for these people to study, e.g., via hybrid lectures.

Would this mean risking the lives of the students? There is risk in any case. I doubt a 3G university would feel responsible if a student suffers severe side-effects. It would likely go with «we did not demand that the student gets vaccinated» — which is a nice, but also cowardly way out. A honest assessment of the pressure to vaccinate would require to take responsibility for every severe side effect. That’s the price you pay for each not-so-severe case of Covid. And that’s why it should be the free decision of the individual, not of the university or the state, whether to get vaccinated or not. Students aren’t minors for whom parents make the decision (well, most are not).

In any case, this approach would be as effective and much more ethical than 3G.

And yeah, Covid is pretty stressful. And regarding the 3G regulations … I really like the university, the teaching, the research, but working under these conditions? I cannot and will not delegate my conscience and I cannot and will not support this approach. Even if 100% of the students would be or become vaccinated, the way to achieve it is still wrong. And it makes a really bad and dangerous precedent for future crises.

Hmmm, on the plus side, I did learn a lot the last one and a half years, mostly how totalitarian systems come to power.