Three weeks ago, President Biden announced plans to require the COVID-19 vaccine – or, in some cases, weekly testing as an alternative – from most American workers. Soon there were predictions that the measure would backfire and only serve to toughen resistance to vaccines. In fact, some surveys indicated that up to half of unvaccinated workers would rather leave work than be vaccinated.
But these threats are turning out to be mostly empty. Many state and local governments, as well as a considerable number of private employers, have already enforced mandatory vaccination, and this requirement has been very successful. Compliance has been high, and only a relatively small number of workers have resigned or had to be fired. To understand why vaccine enforcement seems to work so well, we must think about the true nature of vaccine resistance. For the most part, those who refuse to use it do not really believe that vaccines contain tracking microchips, or that they cause serious side effects.
On the contrary, everything I have seen indicates that many of those who resist vaccination are the same people who in the past were outraged when the use of seat belts was declared mandatory and when phosphates were banned in detergents, or more recently, those who refused to wear a mask. That is to say, they are people who deny when they are asked to accept in the name of the common good something that, in their opinion, can be costly or inconvenient. And as I have noted earlier, political outrage at public health standards seems, if anything, inversely proportional to how onerous those standards are.
The point is that vaccine resistance in general does not stem from deep concerns, but often involves claims about the right to prioritize self-interest (or misperceptions of self-interest) over common interest. So, fortunately, many of those who resist give in as soon as the calculation of self-interest is reversed and the refusal to get the punctures has immediate and tangible costs to their finances.
Let’s go back to talk about why vaccination has stalled in the United States; why, after a promising start, we lag behind other advanced countries. And let’s face it: the main problem is the Republicans.
It is true that vaccination rates among black and Hispanic adults initially lagged behind the rest of the population, as did rates among those who declare themselves politically independent. But these gaps have been quickly corrected. For example, between April and September, the percentage of vaccinated black adults increased from 51% to 70%, while it only rose from 52% to 58% among those who declare themselves Republicans.
The geographic evidence is also compelling. Counties that supported the majority of Donald Trump have much lower vaccination rates than those that supported the majority of Biden. And since June 30, the most Trump tenth of the country has had a death rate from covid 5.5 times higher than the least Trump tenth.
But why do so many Republicans refuse to get vaccinated? Some, of course, believe the ridiculous claims about side effects and sinister conspiracies circulating on social media. But it is probably a small minority.
Almost certainly, the mainstream right-wing media, and especially Fox News, have had much more to do with it. These media generally refrain from making clearly corroborable statements because they are concerned about lawsuits. But nonetheless, they want to do everything they can to weaken the Biden government, so they have done their best to raise questions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
The consequence has been to lead many Republicans to consider that getting vaccinated is an imposition, a cost that they are asked to bear and not a benefit that is offered to them; and of course, something they are encouraged to oppose precisely because the Democrats want it. Medical experts may say that not getting vaccinated greatly increases the risk of becoming seriously ill or dying, but what will they know?
As I have said, there are probably few Americans, even among the self-proclaimed Republicans, who actually believe the horror stories about vaccines, or who are willing to make large and visible personal sacrifices in the name of “freedom.” So as soon as the cost of not getting vaccinated stops being a statistic and becomes concrete – refuse to get vaccinated and you’ll lose your job – most of the resistance to the vaccine evaporates.
All of this has a clear political conclusion for the Biden Administration and other leaders like governors and mayors: go full steam ahead. The obligatory nature of the vaccine will not cause massive resignations; It will cause a drastic rise in vaccination rates, which is critical to finally bringing COVID-19 under control and also to achieving a sustained economic recovery.
And Democrats shouldn’t fear political repercussions. Hardly anyone is going to vote Republicans because they are infuriated by public health regulations, as these people will most likely vote Republicans anyway. What really matters for the political fate of Democrats is that life in America is visibly improving next fall, and the way to do that is by putting those injections in your arms.
Paul Krugman He is a Nobel Prize in Economics. © The New York Times, 2021. News Clips translation