"Go get vaccinated, America," the president urged the nation last Wednesday in his State of the Union address. Joe Biden had a lot of good news to report to the US Congress on the COVID vaccination effort: 220 million shots have been administered in his first 100 days in office, everyone over 16 is eligible and 90 percent of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site. Vaccine manufacturing is booming. Supply will soon no longer be a limiting factor. Yet even as eligibility has expanded, demand has plateaued across the country and vaccination rates have dipped from their peak.
Time is of the essence. More transmissible variants of the virus mean a higher percentage of the population must be immunized to reach herd immunity. We're in a race between the finest that human civilization has to offer and venal dumbassery.
In one corner is science, bolstered by billions in public investment. Eighteen months ago, there were no vaccines for human coronaviruses. Today, there are multiple safe, highly-effective COVID shots. Better yet, thanks to wise public policy and all-hands-on-deck roll-out, they're available for free to any American adult. The president even announced tax credits to reimburse small- and mid-sized businesses that give their employees paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from vaccine side effects.
In the opposite corner are demagogues, clout-chasers and magical thinkers. These operators think they can gain political power, attention and, in some cases, money by undermining vaccinations against a disease that has killed more than 588,000 people.
Power-hungry Republicans like United States Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are positioning themselves as heirs to Donald Trump by opposing vaccinations. Johnson recently told a conservative radio host that distribution should have been limited to the truly vulnerable and he questioned the need for broad-based vaccination.
Johnson also attacked the civic-minded values behind the push for herd immunity. "What is it to you? You have got a vaccine and science is telling you it's very, very effective," Johnson asked, "So, why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?" The answer is obviously herd immunity, which offers protection for those who can't get vaccinated or whose immune systems can't respond to the vaccine.
It's a shrewd bet. Forty-two percent of Republicans say they probably or definitely wouldn't get a shot, even if it's shown to be safe. The "even if shown to be safe" proviso speaks volumes. Some Republicans claim to be against vaccination as a matter of personal liberty, but nobody's forcing them to get vaccinated. It's all rationalization.
Vaccine refusal is a tribal touchstone, even as vaccine hesitancy ebbs generally. Indeed, last summer's heavily armed anti-lockdown sieges of state legislatures were the dress rehearsals for the January 6 insurgency. Rejecting vaccines is about values, not facts. These right-wingers reject vaccines because vaccines represent science, the welfare state and the common good, which are antithetical to everything they hold dear.
Johnson isn't the only Republican riding anti-vaccine paranoia. Perhaps the perfect example of how vaccine denialism furthers extreme right-wing political ambition is Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano, who freely mixes anti-government and anti-vaccine sentiment. Mastriano beat the rush and came out against the COVID vaccine before it existed. He was also a central player in the bid to steal the election for Trump. (He actually had to be pulled out of a meeting with then-president Trump because he was found to be suffering from COVID.) But he recovered enough to organize bus transportation for the January 6 insurrection. Mastriano's antics have transformed him from an obscure legislator to a gubernatorial hopeful.
State legislators in 40 states have introduced bills that would undermine vaccine mandates. These bills are to legislating what vaccine denialism is to science. Few will become law, but they are potent messaging designed to further politicize vaccination.
Some entertainers are also milking COVID denialism for ratings and notoriety. Podcaster Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator better known for his takes on elk meat and DMT, and his willingness to host conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, opined that, "If you're, like, 21 years old, and you say to me, 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'll go no."
Rogan has 11 million listeners, many of them young. Predictably, Fox host Tucker Carlson defended Rogan's attempt to poison public understanding of vaccinations. Even Sean Hannity, who claims he's not anti-vaxx, flirted with vaccine denialism Tuesday, falsely suggesting there might not be any science behind the vaccine.
In a desperate bid to become Twitter's main character, a D-list Republican pundit gave the game away: "My primary reason for refusing the vaccine is much simpler: I dislike the people who want me to take it, and it makes them mad when they hear about my refusal. That, in turn, makes me happy." He's a troll, but he speaks the truth.
We're not just dealing with garden-variety vaccine hesitancy anymore. We're up against a cynical campaign to turn vaccination into a referendum on science, the welfare state and social solidarity. If that's how they want to play it, fine.
Vaccines are the greatest triumph of medicine. Public health is a crowning achievement of the welfare state. What we have done together to battle COVID is a testament to our love for ourselves, our neighbors and our country. Those are our values. The Republicans have called the question. Which side are you on?
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