Imagine how the United States must look to someone in South Africa, where 3.9 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, or India, where the number is 6.9 percent. People in those nations and a hundred others are desperate to be vaccinated, while here in the world’s richest country we have more vaccine doses than we know what to do with, and we’re terribly worried about not hurting the delicate feelings of those who insist on putting everyone else at risk.

This is not the most efficacious public health message to deliver, but I’ll say it anyway: Being nice to those who refuse to be vaccinated is getting awfully tiresome.

To be clear, I’m not saying anyone should start yelling at their family members or neighbors who refuse to be vaccinated; it won’t work, and it will probably just harden their resolve. This isn’t about personal interactions. It’s about how we as a society are treating those who in the name of their “freedom” are putting everyone else at risk.

At the very least, we should start taking every step possible to prevent those actively refusing to participate in our mutual effort to prevent each other from getting sick and dying from doing more harm.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see that some state government agencies and large private organizations are finally putting their foot down and imposing vaccine requirements. The Department of Veterans Affairs will now require vaccinations for front-line workers, and the state of California and the city of New York are telling workers that they have to either be vaccinated or get weekly coronavirus tests. And a long list of health-care organizations is calling for mandatory vaccinations for all workers in their industry.

But consider these alarming statistics:

An analysis by WebMD and Medscape Medical News estimated that 25 percent of hospital workers who had contact with patients had not been vaccinated by the end of May.
One factor behind the slow uptake: Health-care organizations had largely avoided imposing vaccination mandates, fearing the risk of lawsuits or staff defections. Fewer than 9 percent of hospitals had required their workers to get vaccinated as of last Thursday, according to tracking by the American Hospital Association.

I’m sorry, but if you work in a hospital you simply don’t get the “freedom” to put other people at risk. That’s a principle we regularly apply: If your job involves the safety of other people, you may have to do some things you otherwise wouldn’t, to protect the rest of us. Truck drivers are required to pull over and rest so they don’t get into accidents. A chef doesn’t get to say that it’s an infringement on his “freedom” to force him to wash his hands. If you don’t like it, you can do something else for a living.

No, we aren’t going to forcibly vaccinate anyone. But because unvaccinated people pose a danger to the rest of us, we ought to be able to say that if you make that choice, the rest of us can require you to minimize the harm you’re able to do.

There’s no perfect answer to how far such restrictions should go, but at a minimum we ought to say that if you want the freedom not to be vaccinated, a business or organization should have the freedom to tell you to stay away until either you’re vaccinated or the pandemic is over.

Unfortunately, we’ve been moving in exactly the opposite direction. Cynical Republican politicians who see political advantage in pandering to their supporters’ most toxic instincts have moved to prohibit state agencies and even private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination; among the places where this has happened are Texas and Florida, two of the worst current covid hotspots (along with Missouri, where not being vaccinated is now a badge of pride).

We know that there are multiple kinds of people who have yet to be vaccinated. A relatively small number have medical conditions that make it dangerous, and of course accommodations can be made for them. There are people who are hesitant because they distrust the medical system, and they might be convinced with the right kind of outreach. There are those who for whatever reason don’t feel the urgency but wouldn’t necessarily be against it — and might get vaccinated if that’s what it took to go to their favorite restaurant or movie theater.

But then there are the active refusers, the ones imbibing Fox News propaganda and Facebook conspiracy theories, the ones who think not getting vaccinated for a disease that has already killed well over 600,000 Americans makes them independent and strong.

It won’t work to lecture or insult them. There may be nothing that can change their minds. But don’t tell us that there’s something wrong with being angry at them. We should do everything we can to stop them from putting others at risk.

And if saying so makes them upset, and makes them bray even louder about their freedom? Too bad. After a year and a half of this pandemic, and so much suffering and death, it’s hard to care about their feelings.