In the United States, a sense of springtime triumph over the pandemic gave way to a summer of renewed dread as case counts surpassed the second wave that hit the country a year ago. The overwhelming majority of severe cases that require hospitalization involve the unvaccinated, but evidence of “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated compelled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise their guidance last week and urge even vaccinated people to wear masks in many circumstances indoors.
After racing ahead in distributing vaccines to its own people, the United States now ranks below the European Union, as well as Britain and Israel, in terms of the proportion of its population that is inoculated. The slowdown is almost entirely due to vaccine hesitancy, with a recent Washington Post-ABC poll finding that 29 percent of Americans say they are unlikely to get shots — a five-point increase from a similar poll in April. In some parts of the country, coronavirus vaccine refusal has “become a defining marker of community affiliation,” wrote sociologist Brooke Harrington.
This resistance — no matter the widespread availability of vaccines and, in some jurisdictions, the cash awards and other incentives offered to people to take them — has fueled calls for tougher measures from the federal government, including questions raised about a national vaccine mandate. So far in the United States, private corporations have set the trend, with companies such as Facebook, Google, Disney and, yes, The Washington Post making vaccination a condition of returning to work.
In Europe, some national governments have taken more aggressive measures, introducing protocols that require people to show proof of immunization or antibodies in order to go about their daily life. “France, Greece and Italy are requiring people to show their covid passports to go to restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other places where people gather,” wrote my colleague Chico Harlan. “And Britain said people will need to show documentation to enter nightclubs and other crowded venues starting in September. British officials suggested they were less concerned about enforcement than about motivating people to get vaccinated.”
The governing logic is that the greater the numbers of those who get vaccinated, the greater the chance to minimize spread and to restrict conditions that could lead to an even more virulent coronavirus mutation. “The rule is, you need to leave less wiggle room for the virus,” said Sergio Abrignani, an immunologist who advises the Italian government, to my colleagues. “The fewer unvaccinated individuals get together, the lower chances for it to circulate.”
But the prospect of government mandates has provoked an angry backlash. France saw its third consecutive weekend of anti-vaccination passport protests, with demonstrators in Paris clashing with police. The spur of their rage is a new health pass mandated by President Emmanuel Macron’s government that, by next Monday, will require people to show documentation of vaccination, a negative coronavirus test or proof of having recently recovered from covid-19 to enter restaurants and other public spaces.
Critics see a lurking form of tyranny. “It’s a dictatorship,” a Marseille bar owner recently complained to Politico. “Hasn’t Macron read what’s written on our coins? It says Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — what happened to liberty?” In Italy and France, politicians and public figures on both the far right and far left have decried the invasive nature of these new rules.
In the United States, the increasingly partisan animus surrounding the vaccination debate has prompted opponents of President Biden to brand a potential coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers as “authoritarianism.” Some Republicans have even likened the public pressure being heaped on the unvaccinated to the stigma placed on Jewish victims of the Holocaust. (So overheated is this rhetoric that the Auschwitz Memorial Museum came out on Twitter to decry the “moral and intellectual decline” in the Western conversation.)
Vaccine hesitancy has a long tradition in many parts of the world. It’s rooted in often understandable, if not always justifiable, suspicion of new science or wariness of political authority. Some experts argue that forced mandates in the current febrile atmosphere of Western politics may only backfire.
“A democracy must use democratic means — acknowledging unknowns, continuing outreach and avoiding stigmatization — even to combat something as serious and urgent as a pandemic. Making people get vaccinated, by contrast, will likely increase mistrust,” wrote academics Taylor Dotson and Nicholas Tampio for The Post’s Outlook section. “Instead of ‘normalizing’ the jab, it risks creating a permanent and hardened segment of our society, primed to oppose government efforts to deal with covid or other public health crises on the horizon.”
But there’s also the mounting impatience and ire of the vaccinated, who see the protests of vaccine refuseniks not as defenses of individual freedom but a reflection of a kind of blinkered selfishness. “If people’s resistance to getting vaccinated leads to more covid-19 outbreaks and, worse, the rise of a variant that can overcome existing vaccines, the ensuing caution and restrictions would hinder people’s freedoms far more,” noted Vox’s German Lopez.
Even some Republican politicians agree. “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said this month. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”