The vaccine insurrection

How do we deal with the new antivax movement?

The U.S. vaccine rollout, which was world-beating up until a couple of weeks ago, is now beginning to falter. Vaccine shots per day peaked at around 3.35 million/day from April 13-16, and have now fallen steadily to around 2.72 million/day.

This is a huge problem. The U.S. has not vaccinated enough of its people. Israel, which has now crushed the pandemic with a speedy vaccination campaign, saw COVID cases start to decline rapidly when it had vaccinated about 50% of its total population; the U.S. is at 42.7%. We will probably eventually hit the 50% level, and vaccines for young teenagers will add a couple percentage points. But it’s unclear whether that, together with natural immunity, will provide us with herd immunity to this virus. And variants, like the one currently ripping through India, mean we’ll probably need an even higher percent of our people to be vaccinated in order to be truly safe.

The problem isn’t prioritization; that already ended. Nor is it any supply bottleneck; our companies have conquered those in impressive fashion. Instead, it’s vaccine “hesitancy” — people who are eligible for shots just aren’t getting them. A recent poll shows that a staggeringly large percent of Americans either say they won’t get vaccinated, or are saying they’ll “wait and see”:

Remember that if only 60% of the eligible (age 16+) population gets vaccinated, that’s less than 50% of the total population — not even enough to reach the level where Israel crushed the disease. Vaccine refusal by young staffers is causing deadly COVID outbreaks in nursing homes even now.

What is driving vaccine resistance? At the beginning of the vaccine drive, people worried that it would be hippie leftist antivaxers who resisted getting shots, or Black people frightened by the legacy of racist government experiments. But as David Graham of The Atlantic reports, this antivax campaign looks very different:

13 percent of Americans say they definitely won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, but that includes 18 percent of people ages 30 to 49, and a whopping 29 percent of Republicans. Hesitancy is particularly high among people who live in rural areas and white evangelicals…

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy doesn’t line up with the H1N1 polling, nor with standard patterns of hesitancy—for example, crunchy left-wing opposition to childhood vaccinations. But the patterns do line up with resistance to mask wearing and stay-at-home orders.

In other words, the pattern of resistance to the coronavirus vaccines looks less like COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and more like COVID-19 denialism…[M]ost [vaccine refusers] come from the swath of the population that has tended to downplay the disease’s severity and to resist other measures to fight it, rather than the swaths that have resisted vaccines for other diseases.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, recently discouraged people from getting vaccinated, saying “What’s the point?” as long as their neighbors had been vaccinated — basically, encouraging people to free ride. And Florida governor Ron DeSantis banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.

This raises the dread possibility that the antivax campaign has become a right-wing partisan cause. As we Americans know from long and bitter experience, everything that becomes a partisan cause ends up stalemated — Republicans are pressured to do one thing, and Democrats the opposite. With vaccines, this is catastrophic, since herd immunity doesn’t work if only half the country has immunity. This scary prospect is also supported by the strong state-level correlation between Trump support and vaccine refusal:

The states doing the worst at vaccination include the likes of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the previously outstanding West Virginia.

Thankfully, about half of Republicans do say they’ll get vaccinated. So if antivax is a partisan movement now, it hasn’t yet come to dominate the party. Instead, it’s following the general pattern of other nihilistic, destructive impulses on the right, which tend to gain the support of about half of the GOP while losing the other half. For example, a recent poll found that 51% of Republicans say that the party didn’t go far enough in fighting the results of the presidential election, while 45% say that the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th “had a point.”

So it’s possible that the new antivax movement is just another kind of insurrection — a temper tantrum in response to a culture that has swung decisively to the left, an attempt to crash the plane of American public health just as Trump crashed the plane of American politics.

If so, I’m pessimistic about the potential of exhortations and appeals to persuade more people to take their shots. Some people are urging Trump to put out a statement telling his followers to take vaccines, but even if he did that — which I doubt he will — I’m not sure it would have much effect. So far, recognition of the fact that Trump deserves his share of credit for the vaccine development effort doesn’t seem to be causing his followers to embrace the actual product.

Of course I can’t say Democrats are entirely blameless here either; we tend to associate the successful vaccination rollout with Biden and only rarely mention the credit that Trump deserves. We know that Biden, not Trump, will get the lion’s share of the credit when the economy recovers, and GOP voters know this too. Perhaps some Republicans would rather try to free-ride on their neighbors’ immunity than give the hated Democrats a win. So perhaps Democrats should extend an olive branch by talking up Trump’s role in the successful vaccine development. Sadly, I doubt they’ll do that, and I have no idea how well it would work in any case.

But in fact, I think there’s another angle to the new antivax movement besides the partisan angle — a widespread need for a feeling of personal control.

I got this idea when I noticed that talk show host Joe Rogan declared that healthy 21-year-olds shouldn’t get vaccinated. Rogan is no partisan Republican. But he is someone who seems to place great stock in independence of personal thought and action. And this made me realize that refusing to get vaccinated — or simply harboring reservations about the public health experts’ advice that everyone get vaccinated — might feel like a way of exercising personal independence.

And personal independence really just means exercising control over your own life. This pandemic year has seen Americans lose a lot of the control over their lives that they felt they had previously. Mask mandates and distancing requirements created new rules for everyone to follow. And the virus itself represented the greatest loss of control — a silent, insensate, ever-hungry terror that could lay low the strongest man and send the freest spirits cowering to the safety of their homes.

The plague year infantilized us, made us impotent in the face of forces beyond our control. I think that in some people, that produced a strong desire to strike back and reassert a measure of personal autonomy, even if that meant not wearing a mask or not taking a vaccine. Unable to control the virus or their own fear, people instead took the only independent action they felt they could take — they broke society’s rules.

If this is a big part of vaccine refusal, I doubt that paying people to get shots — one commonly suggested remedy — will be very effective, since to the refusers that would feel like selling their personal autonomy for money.

So I think we need to find some way to convince people that getting vaccinated increases your control over your own life, rather than decreasing it. Especially in low-vaccination red states, we have to get refusers to see it as a tool to be wielded, rather than a rule to be followed. Just like a car or a hammer or a gun, a vaccine shot allows you to escape the fear of the virus, while denying COVID simply shoves that fear back into the deep recesses of your psyche. Vaccines are liberating.

So how do we get refusers to see vaccines that way? Perhaps we can air commercials showing vaccinated people living free and normal lives, with no masks, throwing dinner parties and going to concerts without fear. Perhaps, with the end of outdoor mask mandates, fully vaccinated people can walk around maskless with shirts that say “I don’t need a mask, I got a VACCINE!”, or something obnoxious like that. I’m just spitballing here.

Update: This ad seems like a great first step, along just these lines.

But anyway, we need to do something. Our country moved heaven and earth to invent the world’s best vaccines, then rolled them out with one of the world’s most heroic efforts. It will be a shame if our best hope to beat COVID once and for all hits a wall because of partisan rage or people’s need for a feeling of control.