Julie Ponesse: Letter to University Students: COVID Coercion Will Stop as Soon as You Say ‘No’

Julie Ponesse: Letter to University Students: COVID Coercion Will Stop as Soon as You Say ‘No’
A student walks toward the Western University campus in London, Ont., on Sept. 15, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Nicole Osborne)
Julie Ponesse

Dear Canada’s university students,

Over the last year, our country’s universities have dismissed your concerns and refused to answer your questions. They made you unconfident in your beliefs, afraid to ask questions, and reticent to speak out. They undermined everything they were supposed to be nurturing in you.

You complied with the mandates—you got doubly vaccinated, you masked, you distanced, and you stayed at home and tried to adjust to online learning. You followed the universities’ directives in good faith, you believed they had your best interests at heart, and that what you were doing was necessary for your education and essential to protect others.

COVID spread through your campus anyway, all the while undermining your confidence in your right to make choices for yourself, and creating a deep culture of silence, censorship, and division.

The universities’ positions so far have been “trust us,” everything done is to “keep the community safe.” Maybe there was some rationale for that position last year, when more was unknown. But now the data is in.

We keep hearing that this is about the science. But informed consent isn’t about making the “right” decision from objective point of view. It’s about your right not to have to choose between your education and bodily autonomy, to make a decision that reflects who you are and the risks you are willing to take in your life. To penalize someone for not making a particular choice is not consent—it is coercion.

No one knows you like you do, cares about you like you care about you. And no one else will be the primary bearer of the consequences of the choices you make. Science no longer supports the mandates, this is true, but focusing solely on that fact misses the larger point: Your personhood belongs to you, not to the university. For better or worse, your health is your concern. Full stop.

Sometimes we don’t know if it is better to stay silent or speak up. And sometimes we remain silent because we don’t want to risk losing what we care most about. But remaining silent often contributes to the very thing we want to avoid. In this case, without open and honest debate, there is no possibility of the rich, enriching free culture you go to university to receive. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

What can you do as an individual against a multi-million dollar institution full of important people with doctorates? What if you get cancelled? What if you lose everything you have worked for? These are important considerations. But remember this, 21st-century universities are commercial enterprises and you are their customers. They don’t exist without you.

You have been sidelined, ignored, and oppressed, but you are not the ones who will remain silent. When students unite and push back, they have immense power and influence to create change. Your small voice is what matters—the only thing that matters.

Making the choices you want to make right now might not feel like winning and it might not keep you in school. But it will be good practice for life. It will show you who you are and what you are made of, and what you are capable of resisting and creating. And it will give you inestimable confidence and courage for the future.

Standing up to your university, making and protecting the choices you want to make, will be a far greater education than anything you will learn in a university classroom or from a textbook.

One final word of encouragement. This will go on for exactly as long as you stay silent. It will stop as soon as you say “no.”

Respectfully and with the greatest support,

Julie Ponesse, Ph.D. Ethics Scholar, The Democracy Fund

Dr. Julie Ponesse is a professor of ethics who has taught at Huron University College in Canada for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at The Faith and Democracy Series in 2021 and took a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar. She is the author of “My Choice: The Ethical Case Against Covid-19 Vaccine Mandates.”
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