Vaccine Skepticism is Healthy, Vaccine Cynicism is Deadly

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Kevin Ashley, Staff Writer

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Death is inevitable. It is a fact people don’t like to think about, but everyone knows someday you will die. The problem with silent acceptance is it can be used to justify harmful behavior. Currently, in the summer of 2021, the United States is in a great position compared to this time last year. COVID-19 numbers, although climbing, are nowhere near what they were in the summer of 2020. In July of 2020, the US averaged 60 thousand cases a week but now in July of 2021, the US averages 15 thousand cases a week. A vaccine that was once thought to take years to make readily available for anyone who wants it. So, the questions are: why are so many people adamant about not taking the vaccine, and why is the conversation constantly focused on whether you die of COVID-19, or you live? 

Vaccine skepticism has existed since 1796 when the first vaccine was made against smallpox. Vaccine skepticism, or medical skepticism in any aspect, is healthy and good. Taking new medical treatments at face value, in and of itself, is fairly unhealthy. There is a long history of the medical community doing suspicious or terrible things in the name of medicine or science. Examples include the Tuskegee syphilis experiment or experiments that helped shape modern-day gynecology. 

The issue that America faces right now isn’t people who are skeptical of the vaccine. It is people who are cynical of the vaccine.

Cynicism itself is a disease and one that no vaccine can prevent. But why are so many people cynical about the vaccine? It is for two reasons: tribalism and a fundamental misunderstanding of the current stakes.

Tribalism is the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group. From sports to politics, everyone is rooting for their team. Even the ones who don’t believe they are rooting for a team are rooting for a team because even neutrality is a choice in its own right. This tribalism has managed to spill into the vaccination process as well. The Pew Research Center reports that Republican men are the least likely demographic to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Now, it is reductive to say the only reason why Republican men aren’t getting the vaccine is because of tribalism; however, the Republican Party on the federal level hasn’t been the most vocal on everyone getting the vaccine. At the Conservative Political Action Convention, conservatives cheered the fact that Biden wasn’t able to achieve his goal of 75% of Americans vaccinated before July 4. They even cited one of the main reasons for that is the lack of young people getting vaccines. This goes to my next point of the fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake.

The conversation around the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine has been focused on the idea that you either get COVID-19 and die, or you live. Especially when it comes to young people getting the vaccine, the survival rate is 99% and is commonly cited in arguments against taking the vaccine. Now, that 99% survival rate isn’t completely accurate because that depends on age and preexisting health conditions, but for the sake of argument let’s say the death rate is 1%. The statement “since its survival rate is 99% there is no need to worry” is inaccurate. The United States has nearly 333 million people in it. If 1% of the population died that would be over  3.3 million people, which does not include any deaths that would be caused by hospitals overflowing with sick from COVID-19 and unable to help other people with life-threatening illnesses. This is what we saw during the worst of the pandemic, or in countries like India.

One of the reasons why the vaccine hasn’t been successful is because of a lack of understanding regarding the current stakes involved. This isn’t a situation of you live or die; this is a situation of you die or you risk suffering permanent organ damage. For young people in America to adopt the mentality that COVID-19 won’t kill me, so why should I care, feeds into a very harmful way of looking at this virus. The COVID-19 virus has been discovered to cause a large list of post symptoms. The CDC reports post-COVID-19 symptoms can range from inconveniences, like permanent loss or damage of taste or smell, to serious ones, like permanent damage to the lungs or heart. 

Viewing the virus as a situation of, “I live or I die,” is far too reductive for how severe contracting this virus can be. Vaccine cynicism has led to thousands of people suffering the long-term effects of COVID-19 when they didn’t have to. 

Ultimately, this situation boils down to risk analysis: what do you think is going to hurt you in the long run? Will it be a vaccine that has gone through all the medical trials that we usually put vaccines through and has been administered to billions of people across the globe, or a virus that we know is deadly and can cause long-term, permanent damage to anyone of any age.