Since coronavirus has become part of our everyday vocabulary, there has been a lot of focus on vaccine hesitancy. This term was used to describe individuals who were resistant to getting the COVID-19 vaccine because of various concerns ranging from its rather “quick” development and its overall safety. Yet, as the months have rolled on and we have seen relatively few individuals experience ill effects of the vaccine and despite achieving FDA approval, we have not necessarily seen more investment in the vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy is the new “economic anxiety,” a false term used to cover up much more insidious and dangerous behavior-driven, not by real concerns about health and safety but a general hostility toward a more robust, inclusive democracy.
As we moved into the summer months of 2021, where new infections were trending down, mostly because of the success of our vaccine protocols, there remained a vocal minority of Americans stalwart against the most basic prophylactics, like masks. This refusal remained despite more research, better information, widespread vaccine availability, and governmental vetting of these vaccines. Throughout the summer, vaccine hesitancy gave way to outright vaccine denial and became the dominant way of engaging the coronavirus.
We have tried carrots in this country, offering people monetary incentives and lotteries to induce people to take the vaccine and that was a failure. In comparison, we have offered relatively few sticks. The Biden administration and employers have used vaccine mandates and the prospect of potential job loss, but these measures are only egging on individuals’ refusal of the vaccine. So, what are we to do?
One of the most basic things we can do is call this exactly what it is. This isn’t vaccine hesitancy but vaccine denial. This linguistic shift is important because we cannot hope to repair what we do not acknowledge. How we got here was not an inevitability but the result of numerous institutional failures that lead us to treat the pandemic, and our national response, as an option and not a matter of public safety or national security.
No one would have imagined refusing to take off their shoes in the airport in the days, weeks, and months after the 9/11 attacks. That, too, was new for us, yet individuals agreed because that inconvenience was more than a fair trade for American safety. At that moment, compliance with the newly formed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) along with a bevy of new restrictions that forever changed air travel were treated as a national duty, not an option.
Yet here we are facing down a virus that has killed 738,000 Americans since 2020 and still debating the effectiveness of mask-wearing and vaccine usage. At the height of the pandemic, we were experiencing roughly the same number of fatalities from 9/11 on a daily basis. As of today, the number of deaths from COVID-10 equals the entirety of the population of Washington, DC.
While some may say vaccine denial is a byproduct of Americans’ commitment to freedom, we know that notions of freedom are multivalent and controversial. Yet the anti-vaccine and anti-masking stances we have seen with respect to COVID-19 are not the way Americans have typically dealt with pandemics.
The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 killed approximately 675,000 Americans. While the public health apparatus was not as well-developed as it is today, locales that responded aggressively with shuttered business, enacted social distancing, quarantine, and school closures were able to get their infections under control. While some locales decided to go their own way, there was broad agreement that this unique event required a unified response. And, because of these efforts, they were able to squelch this outbreak as well as others that followed.
Similarly, we saw Americans volunteering to socially distance themselves to save their children from polio. A virus that could cause paralysis and death in children was not only feared but was met with a proactive public health agenda shared by political leaders and average citizens. Once the vaccine was developed and made available in the 1950s, the United States had largely eradicated polio by the end of the century twentieth century. Infectious diseases had been the leading cause of death at the beginning of the twentieth century. By the middle of that century, it was not, largely because of vaccines and a willingness for Americans to make hard decisions about “us”, fellow citizens, and “them,” viruses.
Today, that has changed. Instead of focusing on the coronavirus as our national enemy, we have turned that energy inward. Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, even supporters of the January 6th insurrection are all part of an orthodoxy of freedom that doesn’t do the most for the least of these but works to redefine their discomfort as the national emergency.
What we do is unclear, but what is clear is that if we do nothing, if we continue on this road, this pandemic will become endemic and a small minority of Americans will have effectively weaponized their vaccine denial in ways that make us all worse off.
Dr. Niambi Carter
Dr. Niambi Carter is Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University and Woodrow Wilson Fellow. She is the author of American While Black: African Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship.