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Anti-Vaccine and Anti-Democracy

Two big national problems rolled into one.
May 6, 2021
Anti-Vaccine and Anti-Democracy
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 30: Anti-vaccine activists hold signs in front of the Massachusetts State House during a protest against Governor Charlie Baker's mandate that all Massachusetts school students enrolled in child care, pre-school, K-12, and post-secondary institutions must receive the flu vaccine this year on August 30, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

It appears we face two large crises in the United States. We actually are facing only one.

The first is the public health crisis. As more of us get our coronavirus vaccinations, it is becoming increasingly apparent that tens of millions of people are refusing to get a shot. So although COVID cases will likely drop significantly, we may not reach the vaccination level necessary for herd immunity—and therefore COVID could dangerously linger in some form for years to come.

The second crisis is the anti-democratic movement. We’ve been dealing with this for years, but it reached a dangerous new peak this year. Tens of millions of people believe lies about the 2020 election and continue to support the former president who instigated the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

These are not two separate problems.

In each case, public persuasion, using vetted facts, seems to be having very little effect. The public health challenge of the next few months can’t be disentangled from the political problem of the next few years.

In a speech Tuesday, President Joe Biden set forth the administration’s newest vaccination goal: 70 percent of the U.S. adult population with at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by July 4. It is Biden’s most ambitious public health goal yet. It is laudable and should be doable. Almost 110 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, and nearly 150 million Americans (56 percent of the adults in the country) have had at least one shot.

If it were just a matter of administering the necessary shots to reach Biden’s goal in the next two months, that wouldn’t be a problem. We have the vaccine stocks and the capacity in place to get 90 percent of Americans vaccinated in that timeframe. But there are many Americans who would rather die than get a vaccine—and they may just die or kill others in the process. In a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, 13 percent of Americans say they will “definitely not” get a vaccine, while another 6 percent say they will only get a vaccine “if required,” and an additional 15 percent intend to “wait and see.”

Those three categories of vaccine hesitancy include more than 40 percent of Republicans. Some 20 percent of Republicans put themselves in the “definitely not” category. Some of these anti-vaxxers are saying they won’t get the vaccine but will forge vaccination cards, or are clucking online about how Dr. Anthony Fauci is a “quack.”

Some of those who have adopted a “wait and see” attitude say they are worried about the efficacy of the vaccines against a growing number of coronavirus variants popping up. In a White House briefing yesterday, I asked Fauci about this. “The vaccines that induce antibodies, the ones we use in this country, are really quite effective” in protecting against the “British” variant, Fauci told me. Against most other variants, the degree of protection varies, but the vaccines do tend to protect against the worst outcomes. The jury is still out, he said, on the effectiveness of U.S. vaccines on the new variant out of India. Either way, there is little doubt you’re better getting vaccinated than not—especially since getting vaccinated is one sure way to make sure fewer variants emerge.

“We’re going to keep at it,” President Biden said in his remarks on Tuesday. “And I think at the end of the day, most people will be convinced by the fact that their failure to get the vaccine may cause other people to get sick and maybe die.”

Biden sounds confident, and remains publicly convinced 70 percent of adults will get dosed with at least one shot by Independence Day. But, unlike the anti-vaxxers, he doesn’t deny reality: “We know we’re going to get to a place where the doubters exist or the people who just are—I don’t want to say ‘lazy’” to be vaccinated, he explained.

As the Kaiser poll makes clear, we are getting close to hitting that wall. Just as a matter of math, our best bet at reaching the president’s goal of 70 percent is to move people out of the “wait and see” hesitancy category. But there are many Americans who do not believe the vaccines work. They remain suspicious of the government providing the vaccines, or don’t believe they will help out their fellow human beings if they get vaccinated, or don’t care enough for their fellow human beings to do so.

That brings us back to the problem of the anti-democratic movement. More than 70 million people voted for former President Donald Trump in the last election—and a majority of them continue to believe Trump won the election—the “Big Lie” behind the January 6 insurrection.

The former president won’t even call himself “former.” He continues to refer to himself as just “the president.”

The Republicans in the House of Representatives are trying to throw Liz Cheney out of the GOP leadership because she won’t lie about Trump. This follows months of censuresnot to mention booing and heckling—from state parties directed at Republicans who dared to criticize Trump after January 6.

Meanwhile, on the basis of the GOP’s lies about the election, Republican-controlled state legislatures are pursuing dozens of bills to restrict voting. Combined with gerrymandering, these laws could cement GOP control of Congress for years to come.

The GOP’s political lies are reinforced by conservative media on TV, radio, and online—the same media outlets reinforcing Republicans’ rejection of reality about public health.

You may know someone who refuses to be vaccinated, like my next-door neighbor. “You can’t make me get vaccinated,” he told me yesterday.

Or like one of my favorite in-laws, who constantly asks me “Why would I listen to Fauci?” A resident of rural mid-Missouri, he refuses to wear a mask and won’t social distance, so his wife does the shopping and runs other errands while he remains on a farm—unwittingly socially distant from anyone else.

To lower the hurdles to vaccination, the Biden administration has set up a new system to let Americans know of nearby vaccination sites. Simply text your zip code to 438829 and you’ll get a reply listing the 3 nearest locations of the 75,000 U.S. vaccination sites. But for most of the people who are still hesitant, ease of access isn’t what’s stopping them. “Why the hell would I want my government spying on me? What do I need to give them my zip code for?” my in-law asked me when I mentioned the new system. “Well, they already have it,” I explained. “How else would you get your mail?”

Some of the millions of Americans who won’t get vaccinated are among the millions who still support Donald Trump. The struggle is to get those people vaccinated, but that requires getting people educated. So, the Biden goal to get 70 percent of U.S. adults vaccinated against COVID is in large part the same struggle to get the U.S. vaccinated against Trump and Trumpism.

It is a struggle of fact vs. fiction, truth vs. lies, and democracy vs. the insurrectionists led by Donald Trump.

We cannot falter. We cannot rest.

Get vaccinated. Get educated.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.