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Stop Worrying About Conservatives Refusing to Be Vaccinated

They’ll come around with time. The broader questions of access and equity are more important.

A mass vaccination site at an old TJ Maxx store in Lynchburg, Virginia
A mass vaccination site at an old TJ Maxx store in Lynchburg, Virginia

It is probably good news that Donald Trump, speaking on Fox News on Tuesday, encouraged viewers to get a Covid-19 vaccine. “I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it,” the former president told the former financial news anchor Maria Bartiromo, “and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly.” It’s also probably, in terms of the wider vaccination campaign, not particularly important news.

It’s well documented at this point that vaccine hesitancy among Americans is primarily a conservative problem. Republican men are the group most likely to tell pollsters they won’t be vaccinated. This is a specifically American phenomenon. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Conservative Party is winning plaudits for its vaccination campaign, and with Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson reassuring everyone about the safety of the procedure, white men are not particularly resistant to getting their jabs.

While it may seem obvious to blame Trump for the partisan divide here in the United States, his culpability might actually be somewhat overstated. Yes, the former president was vaccinated himself in secret and has not previously endorsed vaccination as plainly as he did this week. But he also publicly and desperately demands credit for the vaccines, from their rapid development and approval to the speed of the national rollout. If he truly wished to make people fear them, he probably wouldn’t try so nakedly to associate himself with their success.

Conservative reluctance to vaccinate likely has more to do with the venue that hosted Trump on Tuesday. Fox News, which is run by the most irresponsible people in the country, has a very popular host who peddles vaccine misinformation, darkly hinting at far-right conspiracies about Bill Gates and government control, to his very large audience. Why Tucker Carlson does this is not entirely clear (vaccine conspiracies might be good for ratings in the short term, but making old conservatives more likely to die of Covid-19 seems like a bad long-term strategy both for Fox and the GOP). Still, his tendency to sow doubt about the vaccine, more than Trump withholding his personal imprimatur, probably explains why vaccine hesitancy persists among Republican men, even as it has declined among nearly everyone else.

There is some reason to be hopeful. Widespread vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans was overstated, or at least prematurely declared. It should be kept in mind that hesitancy is not refusal, and there is nothing inherently irrational in being hesitant about something until you learn more information about it, or more evidence of its safety is available.

Which is why, even if the conservative response right now feels much more like outright refusal than understandable hesitancy, I’m also not that worried about it severely hindering the American rollout. Because everyone else is getting the shot, it’s probably only a matter of time before anti-vaccine horror stories and conspiratorial insinuations cease being convincing, and people stop spreading them. That’s one thing with mass vaccination campaigns, if they are carried out effectively: Eventually most people personally know and interact with vaccinated friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers, and they can see for themselves that those people are doing fine. Sure, there will be holdouts. Right now, I don’t think there will be nearly as many as some fear.

So, while I understand why so many public officials and journalists are focused on the problem, I think we can probably worry a bit less about vaccine hesitancy, in the U.S., at least. (The same may even be true of Western Europe, where the decision to suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine may even have the counterintuitive result of increasing trust in governments, and hence vaccines.) The current right-wing paranoia about the vaccines is a real political problem (especially when, for example, it leads figures like police and prison guards to refuse vaccines, a refusal that magnifies the injustice of denying vaccines to so many incarcerated people), but I suspect it will fade in salience like so many other forgotten and discarded right-wing panics.

The central problem of our vaccination campaign remains access. And while our internal access inequities are real, the access problem remains, for the most part, not a domestic problem but an international one.

As I wrote on Monday, the global north should give the global south permission to produce the vaccines, which are currently approved for use in Europe and the U.S., affordably in their own countries, and distribute doses to their citizens. And the U.S. should probably stop interfering with other countries’ efforts to expand access to their own vaccines, as we apparently tried to do, according to a document from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Global Affairs, when Russia offered to send Brazil doses of the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine.

The details of Sputnik V’s development, and the haste with which the Russian government approved it, led to some reasonable skepticism about it last year. But it has since been shown to be safe and effective. To discourage its use in other countries for geopolitical reasons is itself a form of anti-vaccine behavior.

According to the bizarre logic of American power, it is illegitimate for “ill-intentioned states” to provide aid to countries in the Americas by offering them safe and effective pandemic vaccines. And protecting corporate profit still takes precedence over eradicating a global pandemic. Irrational resistance to mass vaccination is not found solely in old, Fox-addled conservatives.