HHH column: COVID, Schimmelpenninck and Citizenship by Jasper Bongers

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Jasper Bongers, PhD candidate at the Open University of the Netherlands, researching the citizenship game and public health in Utrecht (1866-2001) at the Open University of the Netherlands. In this column, Jasper untangles a journalist’s strong comments on COVID vaccination and explains how the pandemic reveals different, coexisting citizenship claims.

COVID, Schimmelpenninck and Citizenship

Jasper Bongers

In October 2021, the well-known Dutch columnist Sander Schimmelpenninck wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic was not only a health crisis, but also a citizenship crisis.[i] For Schimmelpenninck, there are certain ‘basic rules to good citizenship’. And, although he is not very clear on what these rules are, it is evident to him that the people refusing to be vaccinated do not abide by these rules. According to Schimmelpenninck:

Taking a vaccine is a black-and-white choice, you can’t be a bit vaccinated. Whomever chooses not to get a vaccine, against all advice, chooses a side. This side consists of people who refuse to participate in the larger collective, because their altruism is limited to people from the same family or religion, or because their narcissism makes them incapable of altruism.

Schimmelpenninck goes on to argue that a narrow pursuit of self-interest is a major threat to citizenship, as citizenship would require taking the interests of other people into account – thus providing some insight into what he holds to be the underlying rules of citizenship.

A sticker saying ‘no’ to vaccination passports. Photo taken by Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) – Wikimedia Commons. 

Schimmelpenninck makes an interesting point, but it is a rather one-sided argument. There are more ways to understand the relation between citizenship and public health than only the one that he suggests. Looking at the matter from a medical-historical viewpoint, I think it is important to point out that there have historically been multiple views on what constitutes ‘good’ in public health citizenship. This point can be illustrated by referring to the edited volume Health and citizenship: Political cultures of health in modern Europe (2014).[ii] In this book, historians Frank Huisman and Harry Oosterhuis outline various traditions of citizenship, most notably the liberal (stressing protection against intrusion of the state), social (focussing on collectively ensuring that health is an inalienable right) and neo-republican (emphasizing civic responsibilities) traditions. Although the relative prominence of these traditions, or ‘ideal types’, changes over time – with liberal conceptions of citizenship being dominant in the middle of the 19th century and the neo-republican conceptions rising in the late 20th century – it is important to emphasize that the traditions of citizenship overlap. In terms of periodization, there is no clear cut-off between, say, liberal and social citizenship traditions.

Huisman and Oosterhuis rightly make the point that public health citizenship has historically taken multiple shapes. But the multiplicity of citizenship does not only exist in the past. We can also distinguish various ways of understanding citizenship and health when looking at our contemporary COVID case. Beside the view posited by Schimmelpenninck, we can also recognise a vocabulary of citizenship when observing the ways in which people refusing vaccination write about themselves and their decisions: a vocabulary about standing up against medical authority in the name of freedom, and about a resilient political community defending the rights to  free speech and bodily integrity in challenging times. In this ‘anti-vax’ narrative, Schimmelpenninck’s good citizens could even (provocatively) be seen as sheep: as subjects rather than citizens.

Schimmelpenninck is right to point out that COVID is not only a health issue. Indeed, it is also an issue of citizenship. But ‘citizenship crisis’ sounds a bit too panicky for my taste. I would say that COVID has shown us (once again) that there are more ways than one to build a citizenship claim. Whilst Schimmelpennick’s citizenship-narrative is (probably) grounded in what may roughly be called a communitarian philosophical tradition (emphasizing collectivity), those refusing vaccination often build on a version of libertarian values (emphasizing autonomy and freedom of choice).

As I see it, the coronavirus is one of the many rounds of the citizenship game playing out in the history of public health: the ongoing struggle over who can position themselves as full members of the political community.

[i] Sander Schimmelpenninck, “De coronacrisis is inmiddels vooral een burgerschapscrisis”, De Volkskrant, 31 oktober 2021, https://www.volkskrant.nl/columns-opinie/de-coronacrisis-is-inmiddels-vooral-een-burgerschapscrisis~b9521ea7/ .

[ii] Frank Huisman en Harry Oosterhuis, Health and Citizenship: Political Cultures of Health in Modern Europe. Routledge, 2015.

Are you a member of HHH and are you interested in writing a column on a topic of your choice? E-mail us at chiara.lacroix@gmail.com.