By Zeynep Tufekci
Back when a viral pandemic killing millions around the world was just the plot of a scary movie, the film “Contagion” was lauded for how accurately it depicted the way such an outbreak would occur.
On the science of viral contagion, it was quite sharp, clearly explaining things like R0 (the measure of how widely one infection could spread to others, on average).
Of the human dimension of contagion, it did not prove as prescient. In the movie, fearful nurses walked off the job at the start of the pandemic, which begins to end as soon as vaccines become available, with people lining up eagerly for their turn.
The opposite happened in real life. Despite enormous personal risk, almost all health care workers stayed on the job in the first months of the Covid pandemic. Despite vaccines being widely available since spring in the United States, tens of thousands of people are dying every month because they chose not to be inoculated.
The failure of the United States to vaccinate more people stands out, especially since we had every seeming advantage to get it done. As early as the end of April of this year, when vaccines were in dire short supply globally, almost every adult who wanted to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in the United States could do so, free of charge. By June, about 43 percent of the U.S. population had received two doses while that number was only about 6 percent in Canada and 3 percent in Japan.
Now, just a few months later, these countries, along with 44 others, have surpassed U.S. vaccination rates. And our failure shows: America continues to have among the highest deaths per capita from Covid.
Science’s ability to understand our cells and airways cannot save us if we don’t also understand our society and how we can be led astray.
There is a clear partisan divide over vaccination — Republicans are more likely to tell pollsters that they will not get vaccinated. Some Republican politicians and Fox News hosts have been pumping out anti-vaccine propaganda. The loud, ideological anti-vaxxers exist, and it’s not hard to understand the anger directed at them. All this may make it seem as if almost all the holdouts are conspiracy theorists and anti-science die-hards who think that Covid is a hoax, or that there is nothing we can do to reach more people.
Real-life evidence, what there is, demonstrates that there’s much more to it.
Almost 95 percent of those over 65 in the United States have received at least one dose. This is a remarkable number, given that polling has shown that this age group is prone to online misinformation, is heavily represented among Fox News viewers and is more likely to vote Republican. Clearly, misinformation is not destiny.