A year ago, when the frightening COVID-19 pandemic was raging around the globe, killing millions, filling hospitals, shutting schools and businesses and arenas, we all knew what we needed.
We needed a vaccine.
Vaccines were perhaps the most important development in the history of science. It wasn’t social distancing that virtually eliminated polio. It wasn’t masks or hand-washing that beat small pox or measles. It was vaccines.
Vaccines are a routine requirement for attending school, serving in the military and, often, international travel. When coronavirus first appeared, the political divide was not over the need, but over which party could do the best job of making vaccines available.
The Trump administration announced the launch of Operation Warp Speed, a well-funded public-private partnership to develop a vaccine and distribute it as widely as possible, as fast as possible. The Biden administration, when its turn came, laid the blame for the slow initial roll-out of the vaccine on the alleged incompetence of its predecessor.
But, starting in November, the vaccines did come. Slowly at first, through systems invented on the fly and websites that crashed under the weight of so many wanting their shots as soon as possible.
Case numbers, positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths all declined markedly. The masks came off. The restaurants and shops reopened. Arenas and ball parks were full again.
Then we hit a wall.
Even as it became easier for people to get vaccinated, as the shots became available at county health departments, pharmacy counters and at pop-up clinics, the number of people willing to do so stalled.
There was a perception that the worst was over. A phony, right-wing media campaign based on the idea that it was all overblown from the beginning and that the vaccines are dangerous. A widespread lack of trust, not only on the political right, in the elected officials and health experts who were urging us to get vaccinated.
Astoundingly, leaders of the anti-vax right — Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, etc. — even as they got the vaccine themselves, passed up a golden opportunity to take credit for it and win support and credibility beyond their base.
Statistics show that areas that voted for Trump in the last election are the same areas where vaccine rates are low and COVID-19 rates are climbing. Right-wing media mavens seem happy to condemn their own followers to suffering and death as long as they can raise fear, raise ratings and sell pillows in the process.
The divide is not totally partisan. Republicans at least verbally on the pro-vaccination side include Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Sen. Mitt Romney and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Romney rightly said demonizing vaccines for political gain is “moronic.” McConnell is “perplexed” by the reluctance of many on his side to get vaccinated.
In Utah, Cox has begged and pleaded and cajoled. He rightly pointed out that right-wing propaganda is literally causing people to die. But he is burdened by a personal reluctance to actually govern and a Republican Legislature that had forbidden not only mandates but even incentives.
The threat of yet another crippling coronavirus wave is very real and the only way to stop it — without resorting to another round of shutdowns that probably wouldn’t work anyway — is for the stubborn percentage of Utahns and other Americans who have yet to be fully vaccinated to get the jab. And soon.
If we are to avoid spending another year, or more, hiding from the virus, over-stressing our health care system, burying loved ones — and no longer just Grandma, but our teenage and 20-something cousins — we are going to have to stop asking, go beyond encouraging and start requiring.
A universal mandate is probably more than the political system could tolerate. But government should at least allow, and businesses and institutions should definitely enforce, vaccine requirements for anyone old enough to get one to enter public schools, universities, offices, factories, job sites, sports venues, airports, government and public buildings and stores. Yes, even churches — which is constitutional as long as they aren’t treated differently.
Walking around today unvaccinated is not a political statement or an exercise of personal freedom. It is an expression of outright contempt for the lives of others. Something usually frowned upon in civilized society.
It is like taking pride in driving drunk. The response of society is not to tell people they can’t drink, but that, if they do, they have to stay home and not endanger anyone else.
The need for a full-court social and political press to get people vaccinated goes beyond the threat of the coronavirus. Giving too much deference to the anti-science part of society risks undoing centuries of progress against other public health threats, from polio to measles to AIDS.
We probably cannot force everyone to get the vaccine. But we can make them feel the appropriate levels of shame and disdain if they won’t take such a minimal step for the common good.