As the Economist points out, the anti-vax movement in America today is unprecedented. There have always been people who objected to vaccinations, but they were on the fringe, a smattering of naysayers. The price of these rejectionists was usually small — a few outbreaks of measles every now and then. This time, it’s different. In the midst of a raging pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, we’ve seen the rise of a vast right-wing conspiracy theory about the vaccines. It has been stoked by influential figures in the conservative media and tolerated, even encouraged, by powerful Republican politicians.
The results are damning. As of June, 86 percent of Democrats had received at least one dose, compared with 52 percent of Republicans. All the states with the lowest levels of vaccination — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Wyoming and Louisiana — voted heavily for Donald Trump. Barely half of Republican House members report being vaccinated.
Anti-vaccination sentiment is not just an American problem. In many places around the world, there are segments of the population — sometimes rural, sometimes less-educated — who are vaccine-hesitant.
But there are few equivalents anywhere in the world to what’s happened in the United States, where major political forces have been propagating misinformation on a wide scale about a deadly disease. In fact, American misinformation has gone global, legitimizing and encouraging anti-vaxxers around the world.
Like the United States, France has had high levels of anti-vaccination sentiment. But political leadership seems to be changing things. President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that health workers would be required to get vaccinated. And the unvaccinated won’t be allowed to enter restaurants and cafes, go to theaters and cinemas, or take trains and planes. This new vaccine passport has drawn loud protests, but millions of French people have signed up for the vaccine since Macron announced these rules. (The usual exceptions for health conditions are allowed, and there is also the option to get tested frequently instead.) Although France’s opposition leaders bitterly oppose the policy as heavy-handed, they are not spreading misinformation.
President Biden needs to get tough. He should explain that while we cherish freedom in America, you do not have the right to do anything and everything when it endangers the lives of others or places burdens on them.
Here are some things that you are forced to do in the United States: go to school, pay taxes, register for the draft (if you are male), serve on a jury. There are also many things that you are not allowed to do that might be mistakenly seen as involving no one else: You may not buy or sell controlled substances, litter on public streets, make loud noise after certain hours, and so on. If you drive a car, you are required to get a license, buy insurance, wear a seat belt, obey street signs and speed limits, have the car inspected and limit alcohol intake before driving. If you want your children to go to a public school in the United States, they must be vaccinated. These are all mandates because seemingly private actions actually impose public costs. You should not have the right to spread disease and occupy a precious hospital bed.
Some Republican politicians and conservative media figures are finally urging people to get vaccinated. But they may be too late. As it did with the rise of Donald Trump, the allegations of voter fraud and the accusations of a stolen election, the party has indulged its crazies for too long, fanning the flames of falsehood and creating a miasma of misinformation. A number of Republican governors, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have pandered to their base by prohibiting businesses and government entities from requiring proof of vaccination.
Republicans say that they are for economic growth and against lockdowns. But it is the Republican Party and the conservative media, by their actions and negligence, that are endangering the United States’ economy — and, far more importantly, the lives of its people.