Vaccine hesitancy is a serious problem. It is killing people and prolonging the social and economic costs of the pandemic.
One possible policy response is to make vaccination mandatory, at least in certain contexts (hospitals, schools, interstate transportation, etc.).
Libertarians frequently object to vaccine mandates in uncompromising terms. They exaggerate the risk of vaccine side effects. They insist on individual liberty while ignoring the costs that the unvaccinated impose on others. They also elide the fact that vaccine hesitancy is frequently based on misinformation and fear, not on devotion to grand libertarian principle, and they deny that we have any obligations to help those who are wrongly worried about vaccine safety.
Here is a useful corrective from Zeynep Tufekci writing in the New York Times:
The research and data we do have show that significant portions of the unvaccinated public were confused and concerned, rather than absolutely opposed to vaccines.
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The Covid States team shared with me more than a thousand comments from unvaccinated people who were surveyed. Scrolling through them, I noticed a lot more fear than certainty. There was the very, very rare “it’s a hoax” and “it’s a gene therapy” but most of it was a version of: I’m not sure it’s safe. Was it developed too fast? Do we know enough? There was also a lot of fear of side effects, worries about lack of Food and Drug Administration approval and about yet-undiscovered dangers.
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It may well be that some of the unvaccinated are a bit like cats stuck in a tree. They’ve made bad decisions earlier and now may be frozen, part in fear, and unable to admit their initial hesitancy wasn’t a good idea, so they may come back with a version of how they are just doing “more research.”
We know from research into human behavior but also just common sense that in such situations, face-saving can be crucial.
In fact, that’s exactly why the mandates may be working so well. If all the unvaccinated truly believed that vaccines were that dangerous, more of them would have quit. These mandates may be making it possible for those people previously frozen in fear to cross the line, but in a face-saving manner.
Research also shows that many of the unvaccinated have expressed concerns about long-term effects. Consider an information campaign geared toward explaining that unlike many drugs, for which adverse reactions can indeed take a long time to surface, adverse effects of vaccines generally occur within weeks or months, since they work differently, as the immunologist Andrew Croxford explained in the Boston Review. Medical professionals could be dispatched to vaccination clinics, workplaces and stores to get that point across. (Yes, medical professionals are overwhelmed, but the best way to reduce their burden is to vaccinate more people.) This would let some hesitant people feel like they had “done their research,” while interacting with a medical professional — the basis for more trust.
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Of course, there are some people who it seems will never be persuaded. One strategy that has been shown to work is to highlight deceptive practices. In campaigns to keep teens from smoking, advertisements pointed out how the tobacco industry manipulated people. For Covid, the unvaccinated could be shown that they have been taken in by people who have misled them, even while getting vaccinated themselves.
There are arguments against vaccine mandates, including arguments about the value of individual liberty, the danger of government overreach, implementation challenges, and the risk that mandates will backfire and increase political polarization and opposition to mandatory vaccination for all diseases.
The strength of these arguments is debatable. In a rational world we could debate whether mandates make sense, all things considered. And one of the things that we would consider is the fact that unvaccinated people are dying unnecessarily, because they have been bombarded with misinformation.