Since Monday, members of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, and local councils unable to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination or recovery have been excluded from parliamentary business, including online meetings and voting in parliament.
Last month the Australian state of Victoria also imposed a vaccine mandate for lawmakers. But Latvia is the first democratic country to do so at a national level.
Legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of measures in Latvia and Victoria. But the more fundamental question is moral and political: how far can policy go in the coercive enforcement of vaccine mandates?
Targeting the unvaccinated undermines equal citizenship
We have grown used to severe restrictions on our liberties. At times in this pandemic, freedom of movement has ended. It remains severely restricted.
Schools and universities have closed. We have become used to mask mandates, the obligation to be tested, and providing proof of our vaccination status to access goods and services formerly open to all.
Whereas responses to the first wave of infections and deaths in Europe were applicable generally, occasionally targeted at communities suffering most, this is no longer the case.
Increasingly, policy responses target unvaccinated citizens, even if they are able to prove they are not sick by showing recent, negative tests.
Austria has gone back into a partial lockdown. Unvaccinated persons in Austria now cannot leave their places of residence except for a limited number of essential reasons.
In New South Wales, Australia, unvaccinated adults cannot visit other people at home, again with some specific exceptions.
Singapore has decided that the unvaccinated will have to foot their own medical bills for COVID-related treatment from early December.
These sorts of measures have been highly controversial – and with good reason. Targeting citizens based on their vaccination status throws into question the principle of equal citizenship, a pillar of liberal democracy.
Legislators must be allowed to do their jobs
The pandemic is an unprecedented challenge to public health in modern times. Millions have died. Perhaps some of these tough measures are justified on moral grounds.
And even where we disagree with specific measures, we may accept that they are legitimate if passed by democratically-authorised actors within the scope of their mandate. Indeed, that’s what lies at the heart of democratic government.
We can disagree with some coronavirus policies while still underlining the authority of democratic actors to make these calls.
But all this is premised on the legitimacy of those democratic procedures. It requires core civil and political rights, like the right to freedom of speech, association and protest, the right to vote, and the right to be elected.
Crucially, these rights should be secured for all members of the polity. If you are only in favour of civil and political rights for people you agree with, you are not a democrat.
The decisions to exclude unvaccinated parliamentarians in Latvia and Victoria undermines the democratic minimum.
Latvians went to the polls in 2018, voting for parties based on public lists of candidates. The lawmakers elected to the Saeima have a clear democratic mandate.
Making such a mandate conditional on their vaccination status undermines something fundamental to democracy: pluralism.
With the disenfranchisement of unvaccinated MPs, Latvia joins the top of the list of EU states backsliding on democracy.
This issue is not about the desirability of strong measures to combat the pandemic. It is not a question of ideology. In democratic states, civil and political rights are fundamental across the political spectrum.
Democrats across Europe should wake up.
Josette Daemen is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University, researching the political philosophy of security. Tom Theuns is Assistant Professor of Political Theory and European Politics at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University and Associate Researcher at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po Paris.