The good news: Our region has the highest vaccination rates in the country, with Massachusetts second only to New Hampshire when it comes to people who have gotten at least one shot of the COVID vaccine.
The bad news: We can’t secede.
Not that we’d want to, right? Right? Sure, closing our borders has a certain appeal for those of us enamored of environmental regulations, sane gun safety measures, common decency, and herd immunity. But we all have loved ones out there in the world beyond, and, even now, the United States still seems like quite a good notion.
And so it is that just as we were all at the mercy of those who refused to mask up and take other precautions that would have slowed the spread of COVID over the last year, we are now at the mercy of those who won’t take the shot. That stubborn fact remains as maddening as it ever was.
Nationally, about 30 percent of Americans are reluctant to get the vaccine, and though that number will drop, experts are saying it won’t get low enough to give herd immunity. In some states, including Wyoming, North Dakota, and Mississippi, people are super hesitant to be vaccinated. Which means that COVID hangs around, and mutates, and even in states with high vaccination rates that’s a scary prospect.
There are plenty of good people who are refusing to take the vaccine at this point. And there are some not so good people who are feeding and deepening that refusal, for their own power and personal gain: destructive manipulators like conspiracist Alex Jones and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, a more chilling and effective purveyor of Trumpism than the former president himself.
Each night, Carlson feeds his millions of viewers misinformation that will be deadly to some of them. It’s hardly a viable long-term strategy to spread doubts and lies that leave core supporters more vulnerable to a potentially fatal disease, but it’s clearly a lucrative one.
Fox and the GOP have little to offer now besides new fronts in the culture wars and zealous devotion to the notion that government is the enemy.
That Republican orthodoxy — that government is not to be trusted (and therefore not adequately funded) — is central to our current predicament, according to David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University. Since March of last year, Lazer and researchers at other universities have been analyzing public attitudes to COVID via monthly polls as part of The Covid States Project.
More highly educated, affluent, older, white people and Asian-Americans are most likely to be enthusiastic about vaccines, as are Democrats, their research has found. Those with lower incomes and less education, rural folks, and Black Americans are more likely to be vaccine-resistant, as are Republicans. Though Lazer noted that Black respondents have grown far less hesitant since Joe Biden became president.
“The key driver is trust,” Lazer said. “Republicans trust government institutions less than Democrats. It’s also about identity, the idea that [being vaccinated] is something Democrats do, and not something Republicans do.”
It’s easy to dismiss the refusers, and God knows it’s frustrating to have to deal with the consequences of their intransigence. But agreeing to get a vaccination that was approved at — yes — warp speed does require a good amount of trust in government.
And it’s hard to find a moment in recent memory when that trust has been more battered, as Republican politicians use The Big Lie of a stolen election to appease a former president who still controls the party, and to justify measures to suppress Democratic votes across the country. Democracy is the contagion the GOP fears most.
Six months after the election, a terrifying 70 percent of Republicans still say Biden didn’t win the election. Trust government? They don’t even recognize it as legitimate. The Big Lie and vaccine refusal are two sides of the same coin.
“It’s clear that they’re coming from the same wellspring,” Lazer said. “Amped up distrust of the political system is spilling over into the whole vaccination process.”
And all of us — even those of us who have chosen to protect ourselves and each other — will pay for it.