COVID-19 vaccination hesitation won’t be fixed with anger or insults

by | Jul 25, 2021 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You’re in line at the bank. The person ahead of you is talking to the cashier. Minutes pass. “What’s taking so long?” you wonder.

You’re in traffic. You switch to the left lane. The person in front of you is going under the speed limit. “Why so slow?” you grouse.

These things occur every day in America, in hundreds of ways. We have our pace, and when others don’t match it, we get steamed.

So it’s no surprise the country is now split over the COVID-19 vaccine. Those who have taken it can’t understand the hesitancy of those who have not. “Come on, already!” they bemoan. “Don’t you see the danger? What’s taking you so long?”

If I were younger, I might be yelling the same thing. For the record, I’m vaccinated. I believe the protection is worth whatever risks it might carry.

But the years have shown me no matter how righteous you feel, you can’t rush certain people, you can’t convince certain people, and if you keep harassing those people, you are increasingly less likely to get your desired result.

In researching this column, I came upon a study done in October 2020 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open. It predicted — and this was a couple months before shots were available— that the worst thing America could do if it wanted people to trust a COVID-19 vaccine would be to have politicians endorse it.


Who do you trust?

President Joe Biden has been endorsing the vaccine everywhere he goes, in loud tones, whispered tones, town halls, speeches. He calls it “gigantically important.” Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said the administration is “pleading” with people to get poked. Democratic legislators trumpet the shot for everyone, while criticizing tepid endorsements of Republican lawmakers, who nonetheless are also now encouraging people to take it.

But these are all politicians, a subset who, according to the latest Pew polls, only about 20% of the American public trusts. Why do we think anyone will listen to them?

And don’t look for journalists to get the message across. According to a recent University of Oxford poll, less than 30% of Americans trust those who bring them the news, (the lowest ranking among 46 countries surveyed.)

Critics blame former President Donald Trump and his followers for discouraging Americans from getting vaccinated. But that same JAMA 2020 study showed that Trump endorsing a vaccine would actually have negative effects on people taking it, so why should his word mean that much on this?

It’s time we recognize that politicians and celebrities are not the convincers they think they are. And the anger many vaccinated people have toward the unvaccinated is just that: anger. Impatience. Frustration. A posture of “us” being smarter than “them.”

But no one really knows exactly why people aren’t taking the shot. You can no more prove it’s due to 12 internet misinformation peddlers than you can prove it’s due to the Tuskegee syphilis study.

Different people have different reasons. Some, I suspect, are just slower to do things. Some are waiting for the FDA to formally approve the vaccines. Some have been lucky enough not to know anyone who has died from COVID-19, so they’re not as worried about it. Some don’t have a ride.

Some, no doubt, are simply confused. Take the case of COVID-recovered patients. If you go to Google and type the question “Do people who had Covid need to get vaccinated?” you’ll get a huge list of articles, ranging from “Had Covid? You’ll Likely Have Antibodies For a Lifetime” to those insisting you need two vaccine doses no matter when you had the virus.

No wonder people are mixed up.

We’ve seen this before

Some folks know someone who had a negative vaccine reaction. It scares them. Some folks have personal resistance to any type of shot. Some people like to wait a few years to judge side effects. Some people just don’t trust anything done in a hurry.

America is a land of individual opinions. There is simply nothing we uniformly agreed upon. Want proof? Right now, we’re in the middle of a political war over voting, which is often referred to as our “sacred right.” But if it were so sacred, how come we can’t even get half the registered population to vote on most Election Days?

The fact that virtually 70% of the U.S. adult population has gotten at least one dose of the vaccine already is actually remarkable — when you consider how apathetic we are on other critical things.

For all our complaints about taxes, more than 60% of Americans don’t have a will or an estate plan. For all the warnings about auto safety, one in eight Americans don’t bother having insurance. Despite endless cancer warnings, 14% of us still smoke. Despite knowing it can cause heart attacks and strokes, 42% of us are considered obese. About 15% of us don’t wear seat belts.

Now, I know the righteously angered will scream, “Yeah, but someone else being fat doesn’t endanger my kids.” But those who fume about the unvaccinated are also forgetting their history.

All vaccines have seen hesitation from the populace. The smallpox vaccine, developed in the late 18th century, faced widespread distrust in Europe despite the deadliness of the disease. People couldn’t accept putting the puss from cowpox into their bodies. They protested. They resisted.

The polio vaccine, highly anticipated in the 1950s by anxious parents worried for their children, suffered a setback when a lab accidentally put active instead of inactive polio virus into a vaccine batch. As a result, 40,000 healthy children developed the disease. It took a while to recover trust.

Even the measles and mumps vaccines, when first developed, had a fair share of “no thanks.” In all these cases, things took time.

It can’t just be political

So why, after less than six months of widespread availability, do we seem to have so little tolerance for the unvaccinated today? Why such anger?

Perhaps because we’re already so angry. Perhaps we’re just taking our left/right divide into this breach. Liberal outlets regularly chide the unvaxed as hypnotized Republicans or gullible Trump followers. But how would that explain a less than 40% vaccination rate in a city like Detroit, which can hardly be called Trump or GOP territory?

We have to stop shoehorning the vaccination issue into our own particular politics. People move at different paces. People look for different signs. The best we can do is continue to illustrate the benefits of the vaccine, tout its successes, recruit local people to talk to other local people — the way polio vaccine hopefuls once walked through neighborhoods collecting nickels and dimes to develop a cure.

But screaming insults, acting superior, or looking down our noses will not prove effective recruiting tools. People will take the vaccine when they are ready to take it, or when they are forced to take it (as is happening now in France, where the government is threatening to deny access to most places if you don’t.) But they won’t take it because you’re yelling at them, or pointing out how stupid they are.

You’re in line at the supermarket. You’re waiting at a toll booth. You don’t understand “What this person in front of me is doing!”

It’s simple. Before we were vaccine targets, we were human beings. And human nature, fickle as it may be, is still a powerful force, as powerful as any virus, and as stubborn as any needle.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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