“Government’s been treating us with bad drugs, broken equipment, and doctors that don’t care for decades. Why should I start trusting ‘em now?”. This came from a friend of mine, Josh when I was trying to convince him to take the jab. This was several months ago. Back then, I honestly thought that the reasons for low vaccination rates in the US stemmed from ignorance and a lack of information. I know better now – the crisis of faith in medicine in the US is much deeper than that. Like a bad wound, it had been stewing for decades, and COVID-19 was what brought all of the bad blood to the surface.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in late 2019, COVID has managed to kill over 4.55 million people worldwide (Kolber et al., 2021). Over 219 million people have been infected but managed to survive, with various degrees of detriment to their health (Kolber et al., 2021). The disease evolved since its initial version, having developed alpha, beta, gamma, and delta strains. It has a progressive tendency toward becoming more contagious and resistant to the existing methods of treatment (Kolber et al., 2021). One would think these facts alone would be enough to make everyone on board with the current vaccination campaign.
It is easy to write off people who, for one reason or another, do not want to vaccinate as anti-scientific fanatics. The fact that some religious leaders actively work against vaccination does not help the impression improve. However, it would be wrong to write off everyone’s concerns as simple superstition or willful ignorance.
My friend Josh, for example, is a black man who grew up in an impoverished black neighborhood in Chicago. He grew up to be self-reliant. The medical facilities available to him were either unavailable due to steep prices or a lack of insurance. Else, they treated him with cold indifference at best or threatened his freedom at worst. “Doctors always treated us as borderline criminals. If you go to them with an injury – they might report you to the cops. If you are brought in intoxicated – they assume you’re a drug addict. How do we know they’re not planning to test this vaccine on us, using us like guinea pigs?” – Josh said to me in one of our conversations. And while you and I may disagree with his logic, you can at least see where it is coming from.
There are currently three vaccines available for use in the US. These are Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Janssen (Desmond & Offit, 2021). These vaccines are widely used and propagated to be efficient against the disease. The likelihood of developing antibodies is over 90%, and although these vaccines do not guarantee full immunity from COVID-19 (Desmond & Offit, 2021). They only reduce the severity of the disease by a significant margin. While the US government uses this data as means of advancing and propagating vaccination, not everyone is convinced of the validity of these claims. “Pfizer vaccine was deployed in December 2020, it achieved full approval in August, next year. Moderna and Janssen aren’t even fully submitted, yet they are being offered to us. Why?” – Anna, another friend of mine, asks. “Pfizer and the Big Pharma are bank-rolling all medical research in this country, in one way or another.” – Luke, a respondent to my survey, adds. “They can write anything they want in those papers, and call it ‘evidence’.”
These people are not uninformed or poorly educated individuals. Anna is a teacher, while Luke is an engineer. They know vaccines were instrumental in defeating almost every deadly disease that used to plague humanity, from smallpox to polio. It is not that they do not trust the concept of vaccination. Instead, they do not trust these vaccines in particular, and not without a good reason. The approval processes for all three vaccines currently in employ were either rushed or not completed. Big Pharma, which has close ties to the US government, has been known to promote drugs that were not fully tested or outright addictive and dangerous. Take OxyContin, for example. It is a pain relief medication that was aggressively advertised in the 1990s and has since become synonymous with being a party drug (Kibaly et al., 2021). Therefore, some people have very good reasons to distrust vaccines for similar reasons. Its aggressive and overwhelming advertising does not produce trust, especially when there was none, to begin with.
The problem of mistrust is exacerbated by what information is available to them. Almost everyone in the US is hooked on social media these days. Facebook, Twitter, and other companies have become extremely efficient in determining what people like and think like. Their algorithms provide users with links to news, videos, and information based on their preferences (Jiang et al., 2021). As a result, these people end up in a kind of echo chamber. If you are pro-vaccine, you will be supplied with evidence that supports your point of view. If you are anti-vaccine, you will be given all the materials to reinforce your belief without offering a voice to the opposition (Jiang et al., 2021). As a result, people become indoctrinated, making it very hard to even listen to others, much less try to understand them. People distance themselves from one another while categorically marking one another with labels, such as “anti-vax troglodyte” or “government sheeple.” This hurts the vaccination effort, as, without respect and dialogue, it would be impossible to convince others, forcing the government to resort to drastic measures.
“I was informed the other day that if I don’t take the jab, I’ll be kicked out of my job.” – Peter, another respondent, told me. “If the government doesn’t respect my rights, why should it respect the proper procedures for making the vax anyway?” – he asked. It is possible to see how the US government’s forceful approach is doing itself a disservice. Its response fits perfectly into the worldview many anti-vaxxers have. If one thinks that the vaccine is either rushed or defunct, the government is inept, and Big Pharma is corrupt, then what’s next? The perceived violations of the right to self-determination are the logical step in their gloomy worldview. The ostracizing by the rest of society and the lack of respect do not help things. As a result, we have what we have – the vaccination rates in the US have barely made it over 50% and are progressing very slowly.
I managed to convince Josh to take the jab in the end. It was not easy and involved plenty of conversation and patient dismantling of the blocks that he had, one by one. The key to it was respect. I did not treat the 40-year-old black man with a job and education as though he were a child. I patiently listened to his concerns, was polite, and kept an open mind. I was fully ready to allow myself to be convinced by his words if he presented a solid enough argument, so long as he was ready to do the same. Instead of ostracizing the “rebels,” the government and society should reach out to them, have an honest conversation, and address the concerns they have. We are in this together, whether we like it or not.
Desmond, A., & Offit, P. A. (2021). On the shoulders of giants – From Jenner’s cowpox to mRNA Covid vaccines. New England Journal of Medicine, 384(12), 1081-1083.
Jiang, J., Ren, X., & Ferrara, E. (2021). Social media polarization and echo chambers in the context of COVID-19: Case study. JMIRx Med, 2(3), e29570.
Kibaly, C., Alderete, J. A., Liu, S. H., Nasef, H. S., Law, P. Y., Evans, C. J., & Cahill, C. M. (2021). Oxycodone in the opioid epidemic: High ‘liking’,‘wanting’, and abuse liability. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 41(5), 899-926.
Kolber, M. R., Fritsch, P., Price, M., Singer, A. G., Young, J., Dugré, N., & Nickonchuk, T. (2021). COVID-19 vaccine fast facts. Canadian Family Physician, 67(3), 185-186.