By Jacob Derin
The United States has reached an awkward phase in the pandemic. The supply of vaccines has eclipsed the demand for them. At this point, virtually everyone who wants a vaccine has either gotten one or is scheduled to get one. But vaccine skepticism and COVID-19 denialism have combined to create an inoculation we never really needed: one against good sense.
The demographics of this group have shifted somewhat over the course of the past year. Initial hesitancy among African Americans, while not entirely gone, has been replaced by the reticence of white Evangelicals as the most serious impediment to full vaccination in the U.S. population.
The root causes of these two phenomena are superficially very different. Black Americans need only look back at atrocities such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments to justify their skepticism towards the American healthcare system. White Evangelical vaccine resistance is often based on misinformation or religious orthodoxy.
Both, however, are part of a larger distrust of American institutions which has pervaded American politics in the Trump and post-Trump eras. The ideological manifestations of this mistrust are often diametrically opposed to each other, but they stem from a common observation: American institutions are on the decline.
America does not command the respect and moral authority it did just four years ago; its healthcare system has become responsible for the deadliest public health disaster in a century, and many Americans feel abandoned and angry.
All of this is understandable, but it erodes the most important foundation of a democratic society: public trust. Politicians often speak of “political capital” as a finite resource measuring the goodwill of the people. If such a thing ever existed, we’ve been borrowing on credit for years and our creditors are getting angry.
The sociopolitical fractures revealed by the pandemic will persist for years to come, and the divide over vaccines is only itself a symptom of a social disease.
The politicization of public health measures (masks, social distancing, etc) will almost certainly damage the efforts of American public health efforts for a generation to come. It’s easy to blame this on the masses, but there were key mistakes made by the federal government, the CDC and state officials.
Recently, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated individuals are no longer advised to continue wearing masks in most settings. Science has supported this move for a long time. For the most part, the CDC held off because of the social consequences of different guidelines for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
But people who were paying attention to the science and the result after result validating the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing disease and transmission surely knew this. Anthony Fauci admitted to fudging the herd immunity numbers based on political considerations.
From a public messaging standpoint, these decisions are understandable, but they squandered public trust.
If the government wants the trust of the people, the least it can do is extend its trust to them. Repairing any relationship starts this way. It’s not easy, and both sides have to stop holding on to old grievances to do it.
But if we want to continue to exist as a single polity, this is the only way to do it.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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