When Vaccine Hesitancy And COVID Denialism Become Public (Mental) Health Problems

Source: The Atlantic

In 2009, two sociologists researched whether Americans were willing to take a novel vaccine during a pandemic. Taking poll data from the midst of the H1N1 swine-flu outbreak, they broke out hesitancy by race, age, and partisanship, among other factors. Nearly two-thirds of Americans were unwilling to receive a shot. But those qualms were relatively evenly distributed in the population.

Older people were more willing to get the vaccine than younger ones, and white and Latino people (about 37 percent each) were more willing than Black people (25 percent). Democrats (39.6 percent) were more willing than Republicans (32.2 percent), but the spread was small. Twelve years later, there’s another pandemic, another vaccine, and more vaccine hesitancy—but that hesitancy has spread differently within the population.

The U.S. has reached a turning point in its fight against COVID-19; all FDA-approved vaccines are now open to all adults. But some Americans seem to believe that scientific concern is being weaponized for partisan ends, and see their own resistance as a defense of freedom. And if the problem is not vaccine hesitancy but COVID-19 denialism, then overcoming it may prove much harder.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation polling, 13 percent of Americans say they definitely won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, but that includes 18 percent of people ages 30 to 49, and a whopping 29 percent of Republicans. Hesitancy is particularly high among people who live in rural areas and white evangelicals—for whom increased church attendance correlates with increased hesitancy, according to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute.

The pattern of resistance to the coronavirus vaccines looks less like COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and more like COVID-19 denialism. While a significant chunk of Americans profess to be uneasy about getting shots to prevent COVID-19, most come from the swath of the population that has tended to downplay the disease’s severity and to resist other measures to fight it, rather than the swaths that have resisted vaccines for other diseases.

There is room for difference of opinion about the efficacy of certain measures taken to combat it. But for some vaccine refusers, the motivation is simply trolling. An essay on the American Greatness website explains:

“My primary reason for refusing the vaccine is much simpler [than worries about personal liberty or medical complications]: I dislike the people who want me to take it, and it makes them mad when they hear about my refusal.

Why is someone making up the pandemic or exaggerating its dangers? What is their goal? And why do so many people keep dying and getting sick from a hoax? In this way, COVID-19 denialism more closely resembles the partisan denial of climate change.

Standard vaccine hesitancy is a public health problem. So is COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. But its apparent roots in COVID-19 denialism suggest that combatting it will require more than just persuading Americans to trust medical science—it may take convincing them to trust each other, too.

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