Since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the front pages of every major news outlet. At the forefront of these headlines is the discussion of a coronavirus vaccine. Medical professionals have dedicated the last five months to keep the US afloat amidst millions of confirmed cases. Meanwhile, labs have been working at record speed to create a vaccine to slow the rate of transmission. Researchers and public health officials hope to produce and begin to distribute a vaccine at the beginning of 2021. Yet, creating an effective vaccine is only half the battle.
A recent University of Chicago survey concludes that around 50% of U.S. citizens would either refuse or be hesitant about a vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci estimates at least 75% of adults must receive the vaccine in order for it to work effectively. So, where does this skepticism come from? And what does it say about our country?
Anti-vaxxers are not new by any means. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a new generation of parenting started to dominate social media. Their message was loud and clear: they don’t trust the science behind vaccinations. While these sentiments can be traced back to the late 1700s, it wasn’t until the last few decades where it appeared that our country started to move backward in the eradication of the disease. This is best exemplified by the 2019 measles outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the US could lose its measles elimination status if the outbreak continues for another year or two. This elimination status has been standing for 20 years but remains threatened by vaccine hesitancy.
But in order to understand the whole story behind vaccine-hesitancy, scientific racism must be taken into account. The European Enlightenment’s notions of reason, progress, and science established the medical model. This model influenced the creation of our current medical institution and the subsequent development of vaccines.
However, in the US, modern medicine (at its best) serves as a privilege for those who are able to afford it. Similarly, the medical model roots itself in scientific racism, ableism, a gender binary, a sex binary, and paved the way for the pseudo-science of sexology. It’s impossible to discuss the advances of science without considering whose narrative it follows. The medicalization of the Black body, of disease and disability, and of non-binary gender and sex, indicate that the dominant narrative of medicine speaks to the white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied man.
Most stereotypes of anti-vaxxers take the shape of naturopath, Birkenstock-wearing, granola parents. Yet, vaccine skepticism isn’t one size fits all. And the aftermath of the Tuskegee syphilis study serves as an example of the broad range of anti-vaccine identity. The study (conducted between 1932-1972) utilized Black sharecroppers to study syphilis. Dozens of people died, and many others remained uncured in order for researchers to examine the disease’s progression. Black bodies, yet again, were exploited in the name of scientific advancement for the rest of white America.
So when considering our history with scientific racism, we have to broaden our perceptions of anti-vaccine demographics. This means recognizing that systemic oppression is the primary reason why vaccine skepticism remains pronounced within the Black community. White privilege in the realm of medicine could not be more apparent.
Current COVID-19 vaccine skepticism
Our current politics further complicate public mistrust in science. President Trump has spoken often about his vaccine skepticism, attributing autism to receiving childhood vaccines. He also claims he has never received a flu shot. But as the pandemic progresses, the thought of a vaccine seems like the only solution. Yet, a large portion of people who are pro-vaccine are hesitant about the unprecedented production speed of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The main reluctance of this particular vaccine is the fear that Trump will profit from covert deals with pharmaceutical companies. With the election looming and the politicization of public health, many worry that a vaccine will play into Trump’s campaign. This association of Trump and a dangerous vaccine grounds itself in fear rather than rationality.
The speed of the vaccine’s production strengthens the public’s presumption that politics impede science and safety. Most vaccines take several years to even decades before mass distribution. This has led large groups of people to believe that the COVID-19 vaccine must be bypassing the necessary steps. In reality, the process has merely been quickened, not reduced. A vaccine is a solution for our return to daily life. Thus, the vaccine presents a catch-22 situation. The faster we can produce one, the faster the pandemic ends. But it’s this speed that further creates hesitancy.
The shortened vaccine timeline paired with mistrust in our own government by many different communities brings us to the statistic the University of Chicago gathered. Only half of our country is willing, at this moment, to receive a vaccine. The same vaccine that will allow us to see loved ones, begin to mend the economy and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Where altruism comes into play
Despite these obstacles of public mistrust, the biggest threat to a novel coronavirus vaccine is our inherent selfishness as a country. Take, for example, the flu shot. In 2019, only 45% of adults received the shot. We’ve all heard the conspiracy that the “flu shot gives you the flu.” This not only misrepresents the science behind the shot but also reinforces the notion that a vaccine is for your personal sake alone. Asserting the individual over the collective whole is not a new concept for Americans. The debate over wearing masks serves as another example of our reluctance for altruism.
Social justice is rooted in selflessness and being an ally means giving more than taking. So to the majority of white, affluent adults who had access to healthcare in 2019 and didn’t receive a flu shot, I challenge you to reconsider your actions and their subsequent effects on marginalized groups. And when access to a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, those who have been advocating for the BLM Movement, those who believe in science, those who want to walk the walk, better be prepared to get vaccinated. Not just for their own safety, but for the health and wellness of others.
There is, however, the misconception that a vaccine will bring immediate normalcy. We all wish upon receiving a small shot that the age of the coronavirus will be over. But in reality, building immunity to a virus takes weeks, even months. And that’s based on the assumption that the vaccine is 100% effective (which none are). Similarly, immunity could be short-lived, requiring multiple vaccinations over time.
The biggest pill to swallow is that once a vaccine becomes readily available, social distancing and mask-wearing won’t disappear: they will be phased out. Regardless of how hard we may wish otherwise, COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future. But our actions, especially on the personal level (re: collectivism), can save lives. Wear a mask, keep your distance, and I beg of you: get that vaccine when it’s ready.
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