In the past six months, we've all witnessed the near-miraculous effectiveness of the vaccines against COVID-19 and President Joe Biden's success at turning the joke of Donald Trump's vaccine plan into a well-oiled machine. Anyone who wants the shot in the U.S. can get it. Yet, despite an initial surge of interest in vaccines in the mid-spring, there's been a drastic drop-off in vaccination rates just ahead of Biden's Independence Day goal for a return to summer grilling.
"The United States is averaging fewer than 1 million shots per day, a decline of more than two-thirds from the peak of 3.4 million in April," the Washington Post reports, noting that "[s]mall armies of health workers and volunteers often outnumber the people showing up to get shots at clinics" in more conservative areas like Utah, North Carolina and Tennessee.
"Experts are concerned that states across the South, where vaccination rates are lagging, could face a surge in coronavirus cases over the summer," the New York Times further reports. While many states in the Northeast have reached Biden's 70% benchmark, the Times notes that only "about half of adults or fewer have received a dose" in 15 red states.
As vaccine rates have been lagging, a number of reasons for what tends to be called "vaccine hesitancy" have been documented through polls and other research. Issues include a lack of access, skepticism that COVID-19 is particularly dangerous, a lack of trust in the vaccines, a belief in conspiracy theories and fear of side effects.
No doubt all these aspects are true to one extent or another, and there's certainly evidence that some working-class people simply are struggling to find the time to get the shots and recover from them. But the glaring geographical differences give away the one deeply uncomfortable reality about what is driving much, if not most, of the discrepancies in vaccination rates: Republicans are refusing to get vaccinated out of pure spite.
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Both Trump and Fox News made it clear in the early days of the pandemic that taking COVID-19 seriously is something only hated liberals would do. To show their right-wing bona fides, it was important for Republican voters to refuse to do anything that would suggest they are concerned about getting sick, which would be seen as disloyalty not only to Trump but to the right-wing cause. This is even though Trump himself got very sick from COVID-19 and then, as soon as it was available, got the vaccine. And it clearly persists, even though the political usefulness of COVID-19 denialism ended when Trump's presidency did.
As Politico's health care reporters Dan Goldberg and Alice Miranda Ollstein wrote on Saturday, the "partisan divide in Covid-19 vaccinations is becoming starker," as evidenced by the fact that all "but one of the 39 congressional districts where at least 60 percent of residents have received a coronavirus shot are represented by Democrats" and "Republicans represent all but two of the 30 districts where fewer than one-third of residents have received a shot."
Another giveaway is how Republican politicians have downplayed the role tribal loyalty and COVID-19 denialism are playing in the vaccine slowdown.
On Sunday morning, Mississippi's Gov. Tate Reeves, in full gaslighting mode to Jake Tapper of CNN, insisted that he believes "all Americans should go get vaccinated because I think it's safe," that that "individuals can make their own decision, Jake, as to how to protect themselves and families."
This is, of course, full-blown nonsense. People aren't carefully researching how best to protect themselves and their families. If that was the case, they'd be lining up for shots because — outside of a few rare cases where people are immunocompromised — the single best and safest way to protect yourself and your family is to get vaccinated.
No, what's actually happening in these red states is that people are putting themselves and their families at risk, deliberately. And they're doing it because Trump spent months downplaying the threat of COVID-19 and making it a loyalty test for his people to do the same. It's also clear that a lot of the fears of vaccine safety being offered to researchers as reasons for vaccine hesitancy are, in fact, just a cover story for the mindless tribalism of the right.
Part of the problem is Trump's ability to convince people to give up their own safety and security in order to prove their loyalty to him. Recall how cronies like Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani ended up in deep but predictable legal trouble after sticking their neck out for Trump? Hundreds of Capitol rioters are now facing fines or jail time because they stormed the Capitol for an ungrateful Trump. As hard as it is for those of us who see this comically dressed, half-literate sociopathic narcissist for who he is, there can be no doubt of the hold he has over some people.
Still, the widespread nature of vaccine refusal in the red states suggests this is actually about much more than Trump the cult leader, especially as he himself has gotten the shot. In fact, the whole situation illustrates how certain lies take on a life of their own on the right, becoming identity markers that far outlast their political expediency. In other words, getting the vaccine would be an admission for conservatives that they were wrong about COVID-19 in the first place, and that liberals were right. And for much of red-state America, that's apparently a far worse fate than death.
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Of course, adding to the problem is that right-wing media has not abandoned the idea that there's something "liberal" and therefore evil about admitting that medical scientists know stuff. Right-wing media figures keep bashing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with increasingly convoluted conspiracy theories involving his emails that no one, right or left, can follow. Such conspiracy theories are incoherent by design. They aren't meant to be understood, so much as to create an air of suspicion around Dr. Fauci and public health officials generally, and to reaffirm that being a true member of the conservative tribe means hating such people.
On Fox News, the message to the audience is quite clear: Real conservatives prove themselves by rejecting the vaccine. Most recently, Tucker Carlson was on air ranting about how it's "medical Jim Crow" to expect people to get vaccinated to protect others. Besides being language designed to minimize the seriousness of actual racism, this kind of rhetoric is also about falsely telling conservative Americans they are akin to a marginalized ethnic group. Refusing vaccination is a way to show off your tribal membership, like wearing a MAGA hat or deliberately getting an ugly haircut, except deadlier.
Outside of mandates or raising the penalties by barring the unvaccinated from public spaces, there's not much to be done now to change Trumper minds on vaccines. They know being unvaccinated is irrational. Being irrational is the appeal. They know how much irrationality annoys liberals. This is one of those situations where, the more that people outside of the Trump tribe push, the more the Trumpers will dig in their heels, ready to stick it to the rest of the country by acting like stubborn asses.
The only solution may be reverse psychology.
People who want the pandemic to end need to, paradoxically, release the desire to see conservatives get vaccinated. The more zen that liberals (or people perceived to be liberals) are about vaccination rates, the less fun it is to try to piss liberals off by refusing to get the shot. Well-intentioned goals, like Biden's 70% by July 4 deadline, end up backfiring. If Biden wants it, then conservatives will, like bratty children, refuse to do it just to stick it to him.
The good news is that, as painful as it is for Democrats to admit, there seems to be a growing acceptance that it's unwise to let Republican anti-vaxxers hold the rest of us hostage. Lockdowns and mask mandates are relaxing, even in blue areas, despite not meeting vaccination goals. While this is less than ideal, it's better than the alternative: keeping those measures in place and trying to incentivize conservatives, who are motivated purely by spite and will thus continue to refuse the shot.
They aren't getting shots in order to troll the liberals. Time to stop feeding the trolls and let them get sick if they really want to play.