OPINION: Vaccine skepticism isn’t surprising given America’s lack of unity



FILE – In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Herd immunity from Covid-19 is looking increasingly unlikely in the United States. According to The New York Times, declining vaccination rates throughout the country caused by vaccine hesitancy are leading public health experts to suspect that herd immunity from the virus may never be achieved in the United States.

Skepticism surrounding Covid-19 vaccines have been made worse by political polarization and Americans’ growing mistrust in civic institutions. According to an April poll from NPR, about one in four Americans said that they would refuse a Covid-19 vaccine if they were offered one. This is problematic considering herd immunity would require over 80 percent of Americans to get immunized.

As a result of this national vaccine hesitancy, scientists are concluding that Covid-19 may never be fully eradicated. Instead, it will likely become a more manageable threat that will stick around and circulate nationwide for the foreseeable future. 

While this conclusion may be disappointing and frightening for many, it isn’t too surprising given the recent history of our nation. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has exposed about the United States, it’s our glaring inability to come together and make sacrifices to tackle large-scale societal issues. Look no further than America’s climate change inaction for more proof of this. Or what about our cultural resistance to higher taxation to combat poverty?

Additionally, there was a remarkable amount of skepticism surrounding the legitimacy of the entirety of the Covid-19 pandemic. While this wasn’t a uniquely American issue, it was certainly more normalized in the U.S. due to former President Donald Trump’s consistent downplaying of the coronavirus. This, too, makes Americans’ reluctance to get vaccinated not particularly shocking.

However, it is important to realize that Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy doesn’t fall neatly in line with one political party or demographic. While Republican men and residents of rural areas are still most likely to refuse the vaccine, there are still a significant number of people across ages, genders, races and  ethnicities who are hesitant to get their shot. 

Cameron, a recent DePaul graduate who requested that we only use his first name, was hesitant about getting his first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for health reasons, rather than political ones.

“I was skeptical because of the speed at which they made the vaccine, produced the vaccine and approved the vaccine,” Cameron told The DePaulia. “I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the emergency approval.”

Despite these initial concerns, Cameron decided to go ahead and get vaccinated anyway. He said he made this decision mostly because of social pressure, as he knew he would be protecting friends and family around him by getting the vaccine. He also cited his concerns about being unable to travel internationally if he was unvaccinated.

“A lot of why I didn’t want to get it was because I felt that I, personally, did not need it,” Cameron said. “But I knew I should protect other people that might be more at risk if they got Covid … I just want to be out of this Covid mess. I felt if getting  the vaccine was one step closer, then so be it.”

Ultimately, it seemed that Cameron’s desire to end the pandemic made getting the vaccine more palatable to him. But for the millions of Americans who haven’t been taking Covid-19 seriously in the first place, this motivation simply doesn’t exist. 

Roberta Garner, professor of political sociology at DePaul University, explained how political polarization has made it more difficult for Americans to unite around the common goal of ending the pandemic.

“People are allowing their political loyalties to confuse their response to public health measures,” Garner wrote in an email. “This distrust and confusion have been amplified and exploited by individuals in politics, some media and the anti-vaxxer movement.”

Garner did detail some measures that should be taken to ease the divisiveness on the vaccination issue. These included detaching public health measures from politics, stressing the personal responsibility for vaccinations, making the vaccine as accessible as possible and even promoting the role of the Trump administration in the vaccine’s development. 

“What’s weird is that the Trump administration launched the development of the vaccine—Operation Warp Speed was successful and brilliant,” Garner wrote. “And yet Mr. Trump seems reluctant to encourage everyone in his base to get vaccinated.”

Trump did encourage Americans to get vaccinated in an April interview with The New York Post, but was quick to include a caveat. 

“The vaccine is a great thing and people should take advantage of it,” Trump said, while adding that “nobody should be forced. We have our freedoms.”

Skepticism of the coronavirus vaccines is just the latest symptom of our nation’s political polarization and declining trust in American institutions. Unfortunately, it’s also deeply unsurprising considering our management of the pandemic as a whole. Countries such as South Korea and New Zealand received global praise for their citizens’ vigilance and unity, which prevented thousands of coronavirus deaths. 

New Zealand, in particular, has remained virtually Covid-19 free for months due to its stellar handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the United States has lost over 580,000 people and counting. 

Living in America this past year has highlighted just how damaging our nation’s social and political polarization can be to our everyday lives. Our lack of unity made Covid-19 needlessly deadly, and is now  needlessly prolonging the pandemic due to vaccine skepticism. 

At this point, I’m not entirely sure what can be done to depolarize these important societal matters. Even if enough Americans get vaccinated, this lack of unity will continue to affect how we deal with problems going forward.

Frankly, it has made me terrified to have to tackle significant issues like this in the future.