As North Americans race to reach herd immunity against COVID-19—our main hope for returning to some sort of normalcy and beating the pandemic—one group is making it difficult to achieve the urgent goal: conservatives.
Conservatives aren’t the only folks who’ve expressed vaccine hesitancy. There was talk that cautious parents might be too nervous to vaccinate their children. Family doctors raced to support Black and brown people who weren’t sure about getting the jab—understandable given how health care systems have systematically sidelined and mistreated them. (For many, this turned out to be more about inequitable vaccine access and less about vaccine distrust.)
For the most part, people have gained confidence in vaccine rollouts. More than half of Americans have received at least one dose of a two-dose vaccine, while more than a third have in Canada.
This is all good news, considering U.S. top doctor Anthony Fauci said about 85 to 90 percent of people need to be vaccinated before herd immunity is possible. For Canada—a country currently grappling with three variants of concerns—vaccines are the ticket to a safe summer filled with outdoor barbecues, or a “one-dose summer” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.
And yet, the U.S. is unlikely to hit herd immunity. Canada might not, either—vaccine hesitancy or flat-out rejection is already higher in Alberta, a conservative hotbed, than anywhere else in the country, and the province is North America’s COVID hotspot.
It appears that conservatives, many of them Christian and male, don’t want to get jabbed.
In the U.S., a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 30 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of white evangelical Christians who responded said they won’t get vaccinated—compared to just 13 percent of everyone polled in total. Yet another poll found that nearly one-quarter of respondents who support former president Donald Trump would “definitely not” get jabbed, compared to only 10 percent of those who voted for President Joe Biden.
According to an Angus Reid poll, 28 percent of Albertans are either unsure whether they’ll get vaccinated or won’t get jabbed at all. One-fifth of people living in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, also conservative provinces, said they’re vaccine hesitant. To compare, 16 percent of Canadians in total are nervous about getting jabbed.
Reaching a critical mass of vaccinated people probably won’t get rid of the coronavirus completely, but it will make the disease more manageable, University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger said, adding regions with fewer vaccinated folks will likely see their own, localized COVID-19 epidemics. That not only puts unvaccinated people at risk, but also vaccinated people living in pockets that are less protected. (That’s because no vaccine is 100 percent effective.)
So, if everyone benefits from mass vaccine campaigns, why the left-right divide?
Calgary family doctor Mukarram Zaidi blamed those in charge of pandemic responses for failing to educate their voters. “Constituencies and the people from the constituencies are looking up to leaders who are against masks, against restrictions, and are still travelling all over the world,” Zaidi said.
The problem, Zaidi said, is that people turn to politicians for guidance more often than they turn to science—”that’s always been the case.” In Alberta, all 24 NDP members of the Alberta legislature, known for being left-leaning, indicated they’re either already vaccinated or will be soon, CTV News reported.Meanwhile, 18 sitting members of the United Conservative Party, the ruling party of the province, refused to even say whether they’d get vaccinated, which could make their voters less willing.
It goes beyond vaccine hesitancy, too, Zaidi said. Support for public health measures like mandatory mask mandates and lockdown-type restrictions has also been low among many conservative leaders in the province, and in December, five of Alberta’s conservative politicians were caught travelling internationally over the holiday season—something Canadians have been discouraged to do.
In fairness, the federal Conservative party has been vocal in their support of getting vaccinated, with party leader Erin O’Toole demanding more vaccine shipments for Canada, since the country can’t make its own.
“We need the prime minister to fight for those vaccines so we can help move past this health crisis,” O’Toole said. Still, a member of O’Toole’s own caucus put out an anti-vax petition that equated vaccine approval to “human experimentation.”
“The level of shared ignorance is beyond comprehension,” Zaidi said.
The same is playing out in the U.S. In Wyoming, the most vaccine hesitant state, one pro-vaccine Republican state representative, Daniel Zwonitzer, told Pew Research Center that many of his colleagues think COVID-19 and vaccines are a hoax. Trump got vaccinated quietly. He’s since encouraged his supporters to get jabbed, but while he was president, he frequently spread COVID disinformation and downplayed the severity of the disease.
“Conservative voters aren't getting vaccines because of leadership who have demonstrated they don't believe in the science of COVID,” Zaidi said. “This is a time when a leader needs to look and assess whether they’re capable to lead.”
The political divide in vaccine uptake is likely widened by media, according to Saxinger.
“I’m shocked at the uniform, consistent, and appalling messages coming through media outlets geared towards right-wing consumers,” Saxinger said. Just last week, FOX News anchor Tucker Carlson falsely told his viewers that COVID vaccines are a “death trap.”
Saxinger said the level of misinformation and conspiracy theories, some touted by conservative politicians, that downplay COVID-19, discredit public health measures, and villainize vaccines are so widespread it’s almost “like you’re playing Whack-A-Mole.”
“The more times people see something—even if they don’t have an anti-science bent—the more it is likely to stick in the form of a doubt. That impression is very, very hard to unstick,” Saxinger said.
Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious disease expert with the Calgary Vaccine Hesitancy Clinic at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, warned against pinning vaccine hesitancy on one political group; most people, not just conservatives, make decisions similarly to their friends, families, and co-workers.
“Politics and values and beliefs have always trumped facts and science because these are emotional decisions,” she said.
Instead, Constantinescu said we need to recognize that vaccine hesitancy is rooted in fear.
The pandemic has threatened a lot—lives, livelihoods, mental health—so it makes sense that people in different circumstances are fearful of the pandemic for different reasons, whether they’re scared of severe illness, job loss, or isolation.
Vaccine hesitancy is “happening because this is an emotional decision and people are really scared and they feel threatened,” so the only way to overcome it is to validate it and then share factual information, Constantinescu said, adding that punishing anti-vaxxers only makes them double down.
The good news is, though, vaccine hesitancy is in decline across North America, according to the Kaiser poll. In March, about 55 percent of Black Americans said they were already vaccinated or planned to be soon—a figure 14 percent higher than reported the month before. Saxinger said that as more people get vaccinated around the world it will be easier to convince others to do the same.
“We need to remember that the majority of people are still keen on vaccination,” Saxinger said.
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