A Beautiful Vaccine
The announcement of the COVID-19 vaccine is good news for most, but its success depends on understanding why some people reject it.
When COVID-19 started sweeping the world earlier this year, there seemed like only one sure-fire way out of it: a vaccine. It couldn’t come fast enough. Well, now, after 1.4 million deaths around the world, it’s almost here, but along with the poke of the needle comes a whole host of other problems: distribution, cost, reliability, public health. And people aren’t unanimously united in their desire to get vaccinated. Vaccines are often discussed in purely scientific terms, but that misses out on the very real social relationships that inform people’s willingness to get vaccinated.
The global human chain of COVID-19 transmission is only as strong as its weakest link. And so to make the vaccination work on a global scale, we need to understand the ‘vaccine hesitant.’ Most of us want the same thing: to choose what’s best for our families, to keep ourselves (and each other) safe, and to trust the medical process. It’s the ways in which we go about ensuring those factors that are different. Addressing them head-on can help us collectively make sense of what a COVID-19 vaccine means.
But first, a quick rundown of the latest developments for context:
This week, biotech upstart Moderna succeeded in a large-scale trial of a COVID-19 vaccine, demonstrating a 94.5% efficacy rate.
Now there are two COVID vaccines in play: Moderna’s joins a previously announced candidate from Pfizer and BioNTech.
A Gallop poll released last Tuesday showed that 58% of Americans are willing to get the vaccine, up from 50% in September. These numbers still indicate significant challenges ahead for public health and government officials striving for mass public compliance.
Let's look at the different ways people experience the pillars of safety, trust, and family when it comes to vaccines, to see why they might embrace or reject them.
💉 THE SAFETY DANCE
For vaccines to work, the majority of people have to be immunized, but not everyone thinks they’re foolproof. Even scientists are the first to say they aren’t 100% safe — and that’s not a bad thing. The narrative that vaccine production is a simple point A to point B success story isn’t useful in helping us navigate the gray areas of public health. Just acknowledging this could help combat the extreme misinformation around vaccines online. Plus, safety doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Is your concept of safety communal or individual? That’s likely to impact how you think about vaccines.
The grayness of success: We often talk about vaccines in purely scientific terms. But opening up the conversation to include an anthropological or social perspective is critical in understanding hesitation around them. Stanford medical anthropologist Lochlann Jain explains how the history of vaccines is actually quite complicated.
Vaccines + autism: Dr. Paul Offit from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia breaks down the misconception that vaccines cause autism. (But also: why do we demonize autism in the first place? Perhaps the fear doesn’t lie in vaccines at all, but in our child being ‘different’ or ‘difficult’ compared to others.)
My children come first: A mother makes a clear distinction between protecting her inner circle or the wider community. It might be shocking to hear someone speak so bluntly, but it cuts directly to the heart of the matter: some people believe themselves to be more important than others. We don’t necessarily have to see it as a moral judgement — the US, after all, is a country that rewards individualism.
My body for my country: A lot of people are concerned by COVID-19 vaccine’s speed, but what’s it like to be one of the first people to get the vaccine? It’s hard not to be impressed by Navneet’s ethical reasoning here. Interestingly, his community was not initially supportive of his decision to trial the vaccine. What makes a person so dedicated to putting their doubts to the side to help others?
IN [BLANK] WE TRUST
If trust is the foundation of any viable partnership, then skepticism is vaccine’s biggest scrooge. Most people trust vaccines, placing their belief squarely in the hands of the scientific and medical community. But implicitly trusting the effectiveness or safety of a vaccine is often a product of one’s specific upbringing or experience. There’s a lack of confidence in the healthcare sector, government, and pharmaceutical industry — and there is historical credence to that mistrust for some cases.
When the conspiracy is true: This story about the CIA’s use of a vaccination project to collect Bin Laden’s DNA is like a real life version of a Greek myth. The CIA got what it wanted — a dead bin Laden — but in the process, set off a cacophony of distrust in vaccines across Pakistan. The stigma that vaccines are a Western plot still persists today.
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: Black Americans are much less likely than whites to get vaccinated. Understanding this historical root is required to answer a difficult question: what must we do to ensure that Black people feel safe and unexploited in our healthcare system?
Eff off, Big Pharma: Many of the ‘vaccine hesitant’ believe the pharmaceutical industry is more interested in profit than people’s health and safety. This piece does a good job explaining the way consumerism has eroded trust. The comments are particularly engaging.
Turning to community: Think about all the things you’ve done in your life to confirm with your entourage. Groupthink — it’s powerful! Harnessing the power of community to change people’s minds (in whichever direction) should never be underestimated.
⧓ FAMILY TIES ⧓
In 1736, Benjamin Franklin’s four-year-old son died. Franklin blamed himself. “I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation,” he wrote years later, referring to the precursor to the smallpox vaccine.
By 1895, when Lora Little vaccinated her son, smallpox vaccines were common. A year later, her seven-year-old Kenneth was dead: a rash of ear infections had developed into diphtheria.
For Little, her son died because of the vaccine. For Franklin, his son died because he wasn’t vaccinated. Both stories cut to the heart of the matter — you do what you think is best for your family at the time.
Children of an epidemic: When we talk about families, we mostly mean children. Protecting children is central to the narrative around vaccinating or not. Children were front and center in the debate around polio in the 1940s; their plight was a useful tool in drumming up support for fundraising.
When you turn 18: Growing up in a family with an anti-vaxxer mom, Ethan Lindberger took matters (diplomatically!) into his own hands when he became a legal adult. It’s not easy to pull away from what you grow up knowing and strike out on your own; it’s impressive to see how Ethan’s mother supports her son in his choices, and how respectful they are towards each other’s differences.
Losing a child: There’s a whole subsection of the internet with testimonials of parents who have lost their children because of a lack of vaccines. It’s heartbreaking to listen to the stories of people who are left with just their pieces of grief, but it serves as an emotional reminder of collective responsibility.
An atheist and a Christian discuss vaccines: Best friends and ideological opposites Matthew and Felix discuss immunizing their children. It’s really refreshing to listen to two people on opposite sides of such a divisive issue give each other the space to explain and learn from each other. They both understand that each is approaching this topic - and each other - from a place of love.
Dolly Parton helped fund the Moderna vaccine (bless) inspiring this “Jolene” parody.
Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine
I’m begging of you, people, take a stand.
Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine
Please don’t charge me just because you can.
Your promise is beyond compare
But what price can the public bear?
We’re out of work and trapped in quarantine.
We fear we will be left to die
If the price is set too high.
How dearly we have paid for you, Vaccine.
Let’s put to use these public funds
And set that virus on the run.
You know the one I mean COVID-19
We’re desperate now to get you here
But that’s no cause to profiteer.
You belong to all the world
My dear vaccine.