Once more on vaccine hesitancy

Let me follow up briefly on my post from yesterday on vaccine hesitancy.

Demeaning people is the first step towards ignoring their interests or even persecuting them.  Jason Brennan urges us to ignore the welfare of the unvaxxed by painting a picture of them as moral terrorists or extortionists.  He holds them responsible for their confusion and fears.  He pretends that everyone is well-informed and knows how to evaluate scientific evidence, and that everyone has loads of time to keep up on the latest covid news.  Then he blames people who fail to get vaccinated for their poor choices. 

These are the key facts, as I see the matter:

  • Many people are not vaccinated, vaccination rates are slowing, rates of hesitancy are high.
  • Most unvaccinated people are not hard-core anti-vaxxers.  Many are busy or have difficulty figuring out how or where to get vaccinated.  Some are scared of needles.  Some just worry about the safety of the vaccines.  Young people are likely to prove difficult to vaccinate, because they are at very low risk of dying from covid.
  • Unvaccinated people are a threat to themselves, to people who for medical reasons cannot be vaccinated (a small group, apparently), and to people who are vaccinated but have compromised immune systems.  They are also (presumably) a very, very small risk to people who are relatively healthy and vaccinated.

I got covid in December during a visit to the hospital.  While I was in the hospital – with an active diagnosis of covid, being cared for by doctors and nurses whose job it was to care for people with active covid – I had several nurses who said they would not get vaccinated, at least not right away.  My sense is they were worried about possible side-effects.  They were not malevolent, they were (relatively) well-informed about the risks of covid and of the vaccines, and they were not as far as I could tell making a political statement.  Their worries were understandable, but their planned choices were (arguably) terribly misguided given their high exposure at work. 

We owe it to the unvaxxed to at least try to persuade them to get vaccinated.  This means spending money:  on education, outreach, transportation.  It means doing research to figure out what works.  Maybe we should go further and pressure people to get vaxxed or use positive incentives (money, beer, pot) to get everyone to vax up.  The case for using pressure and/or incentives is strengthened by third party benefits.

The Biden administration needs to orchestrate a vaccination campaign taking into account our polarized political situation.  That’s hard.  Polarization means that the government cannot simply require people to get vaxxed; even pressuring them will be controversial.  It means that people need to hear pro-vax messages from people they trust – their doctors, religious leaders, family members, etc., not from politicians.  This makes communication much more difficult.  President Biden can get lots of free press to spread the word on vaccines, but if vaccination becomes closely associated with him some Republicans may decline to get their shots.

Brennan’s characterization of the situation is uncharitable, inaccurate, and politically destructive.