This school year was my first teaching a new International Law and Human Rights class, and in our early discussions, we started exploring human rights documents written over the past 75 years. One of the things that struck my students was the fact that some of the more recently drafted documents — particularly those out of Southeast Asia and Africa — included a section on the duties and obligations of citizens as an inherent component of human rights. We thought about why areas that have experienced centuries of colonization and exploitation would have prioritized duties as well as rights, when in other areas — particularly those of significant power and resources — duties are more of an afterthought.
Thus we were faced with the following: Does thinking about duties undermine the whole idea of rights, or does it actually reinforce it, by making our rights as individuals intertwined with the success of the society around us? Indeed, what good are individual rights if society is barely in a state to recognize them? This all came as the first vaccines for COVID-19 were finding their way into people’s arms, and as the conversation had already begun about equitable vaccine distribution, and about health itself as a global right.
My own decision to volunteer for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial was sparked by these same sorts of concerns. In November, I sat in an exam room at the University of Miami, while a PPE-clad nurse injected some unknown substance into my arm. That same month, 10 years earlier, I was across the street at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, while a slightly-less-protected nurse infused my newly placed chemo port with my first round of chemotherapy, for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Part of that treatment included some rather targeted drugs, such as a monoclonal antibody (different forms of which are now on the front lines of experimental COVID-19 treatment).
At the time I didn’t give much thought to those who had themselves been infused with unknown substances in the hopes of making it easier to cure someone else in the future, but as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, I searched for ways I could possibly help. As a high school teacher, my ability to impact the course of this thing seemed pretty slim, but when I heard that vaccine trials were beginning at UM, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do what small part I could, both for the global fight and for that future patient who might be saved by an effective vaccine.
I write all of this with a dose of humility, as I certainly don’t see myself as some selfless fighter on the road to secure global health for all. Indeed, all I did was get a free vaccine, the technology for which had already been tested with Ebola vaccines a few years ago. At best, I would have early immunity, and at worst, I would be inconvenienced by a few trips downtown for nothing more than a placebo. (Well, I suppose the worst could have been dire side effects, but I knew the chances of that were quite small.) But I share this because the decision to take part in this study was, to me, an important statement about our obligations to our local and global communities.
I have seen how our society’s combat mentality, which has undermined our ability to solve even small issues, has impacted my students’ sense of what is possible. I know it has impacted my own optimism about our ability to come together as a community to solve big problems. In some small way, participating in this trial gave me a sense of hope, as I saw all the folks working to end this pandemic. I knew that my participation, as one out of tens of thousands of participants, was truly of minimal value on its own. But I also knew that unless we as a society started to embrace the obligations and duties to do those things necessary to secure the rights we enjoy, our right to a healthy and peaceful life — and indeed to our very dignity and safety as members of a global society — simply can’t exist. Paul Ransom knew that as well.
Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The mission of Ransom Everglades School is to provide an educational environment in which the pursuit of honor, academic excellence and intellectual growth is complemented by concern for the physical, cultural and character development of each student. The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.