Anne Zimmerman, JD, MS
By suggesting a lack of education or a failure to digest vaccination science, the public health officials and media miss a crucial point. Many people who do not want to accept a vaccine speak about liberty, and in the case of mandatory vaccination or vaccination as a condition of participation, bodily intrusion coerced by government. In February, 56 percent of white Republicans surveyed were unsure or planned to refuse vaccination. Their arguments are steeped in patriotism, loyalty to a bill of rights (albeit one that imagines no limits on those rights) and being American. A scientific argument against vaccination refusal when the refusal is for a nonscientific reason is beside the point. Those arguments are better addressed with an emphasis on shared values. Those supporting vaccination want to be patriotic, American, and loyal to the bill of rights as well. The disconnect is smaller. Polarizing talk about vaccine hesitancy that misses the deeper modern public trust arguments or the ways to frame rights that we all value may fuel the hesitance.
The arguments to address rights talk must first recognize rights. The infraction on normally held rights in an emergency, while often challenged, is well-documented and permissible. Mandatory vaccination, especially for school attendance, tends to be legally accepted although state exemptions vary. The pandemic is not the best time to describe the half-life of vaccine ingredients or even the epidemiology (especially without long-term side effect data), but it is an opportunity to address the larger disconnects surrounding how to determine the permissibility of infringing liberty for public health. Everyone believes in a version of a social compact. To some, that means vaccinating. To others, that means contributing to community in other ways. Fairly often, the rights-based enthusiasts participate in their social compact on a local level and on a human level caring for neighbors personally, assisting in emergencies, and some even argue there is a rights-based stereotype that joins the military voluntarily at higher proportions. Most military veterans of all ages are Republican, and Republicans are more likely to refuse to vaccinate. Democrats and Republicans are exercising rights and recognizing an established social compact in different ways.
To me, the free-rider concept is the best vaccination-as-a-responsibility argument for those favoring liberty. Failure to vaccinate is free riding on potential herd immunity, refusing to do one’s part in taking on a small risk to prevent a larger risk to everyone, and shirking a local social compact by making a less safe atmosphere for friends and neighbors. People who have suggested that everyone pull themselves up by their bootstraps, fend for themselves, and not accept public entitlements, like welfare support, may not want to be depicted as benefiting from others becoming vaccinated while they refuse.
Vaccination can be a patriotic act. We can live in free society and exercise more freedom if herd immunity were achieved. Rights-based vaccination hesitancy will not be solved by scientific data, especially unavailable long-term data, and it will not be addressed by labeling any patriotic group less able to understand the science.