Western societies, at least up to very recently, have distinguished themselves by their commitment to two fundamental principles.

The first is the principle that social life is open to all citizens, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their religious creed, their political beliefs, or their personal history, provided they obey rudimentary rules of decorum and civility.

The second is the principle that each person should be afforded a space of personal freedom and trusted to act responsibly, rather than micromanaged in the minutiae of their everyday decisions.

The public and governmental response to the Covid-19 pandemic across much of Europe and parts of North America profoundly threaten both of these bedrock principles. Personal freedom is increasingly morphing into an obligation to blindly submit to arbitrary and coercive government edicts, while the ideal of an open and inclusive society is being corrupted by the notion that only those who make the “right” health choices (as defined by certain public authorities) deserve full access to social life.

In many parts of Europe, people find themselves compelled, under duress, to comply with a string of odd health restrictions mandated by government, like asking customers to wear masks between sips of beer, requesting people to book into a hotel in order to enjoy indoor dining, or giving school lessons with one’s nose and mouth covered up.

Businesses, schools, universities, and restaurants live in constant fear of being shut down or found liable for “enabling” a Covid outbreak. They know they will be less liable in the event of an outbreak if they are seen to comply with whatever regulations the government prescribes, however irrational, contradictory, or inhumane.

Public health is increasingly based on top-down, coercive public health mandates, the policing of intimate aspects of our private life, and the abridgement of a broad range of civil liberties, including freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and freedom of worship.

The most recent step in the erosion of civil liberties under the auspices of public health is the introduction of vaccine passes. If you are not vaccinated and wish to travel between countries the European Union, you must now present a recent negative Covid test, obtained at your own expense.

Vaccine passes are now being extended in some European countries to domestic social venues. For example, Ireland, Austria, and Denmark, have made vaccination a legal precondition for access to restaurants, bars, and other social venues. President Macron has implemented vaccine passes across France. The UK government, having initially taken vaccination passes off the table, has now declared its intention to introduce them by the end of September for crowded venues.

These discriminatory measures have proved controversial, sparking protests in several major European cities, including Dublin, Paris, and Athens. Soon after President Macron announced his intention to make vaccine passes mandatory in a range of social venues, over 100,000 French citizens marched through the streets of France, chanting slogans like “Liberté” and “Passe de honte” (“Pass of Shame”).

People who protest against vaccine passes are not protesting principally on scientific or strictly medical grounds – even though the evidence for the potential efficacy of vaccine controls at reducing Covid infections is underwhelming. Rather, they are protesting against the negative impact of vaccine passes on the freedom and social standing of the unvaccinated.

Let’s start with the implications of a vaccine pass for freedom.

While a health pass would not directly mandate vaccination, it would make social life and travel significantly more burdensome for those who opt, based on their own preference or risk assessment, not to vaccinate. This is medical coercion in all but name, in direct conflict with the right to informed consent to medical treatment, a hallowed principle of medical ethics in the West.

As a rational being, a large part of my dignity resides in not being coercively recruited into projects, enterprises, or relationships that implicate my life in a decisive way, such as marriage, employment, or sexual relationships.

While there is significant political and philosophical disagreement over the limits of a person’s rational autonomy, and it cannot give anyone a blank check to act in a self-destructive or other-destructive manner, there is nonetheless a broad legal and philosophical consensus that it includes the right of adults of sound mind to decline medical interventions in their body, even if those interventions are intended for their own benefit.

Societies that have given public authorities the right to medicate or treat patients without their informed consent have gone down the path of racist and eugenic policies of the vilest sort.

Second, there is the issue of discrimination. Vaccine discrimination is no more ethically acceptable than discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, or religion. What possible justification could there be for systematically closing the doors of bars, restaurants, cinemas, and other social venues to customers who happen, for whatever reason, to have declined a vaccine?

If we punish an adult of sound mind for making a different judgment call than that of a government agency about which forms of treatment are most conductive to their personal health and well-being, we are removing agency from that person, treating him like a ward of State.

Furthermore, vaccine-based discrimination cuts directly against the ideal of equal citizenship, in which all law-abiding citizens can participate freely in social life, irrespective of their ethnicity, place of origin, or vaccination status.

The fact that Western governments would seriously propose turning unvaccinated citizens into a new social under-class shows just how blind they have become to core Western values such as the right to informed consent to medical treatment and the equal standing of all citizens in the public square.

We can only hope that ordinary citizens, as well as bar and restaurant owners, will have the courage and integrity to refuse to have any hand or part in all this. If they do not, Western governments will only be further emboldened to keep chipping away at our civil liberties, as they have been doing from day one of the pandemic.

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society.