A few weeks ago, I drove two hours north to the hillside town of Olyphant, Pa., Just outside of Scranton, to meet a Donald Trump fan for a book project. I’m working on.
For 90 minutes, I listened to this fired factory worker and 54-year-old former Democrat who now says that the more liberal politicians and other elites express their contempt for the ex-president, the more firmly he supports Trump. He was also outspoken about his recent health issues – including a heart attack and stroke – so I asked if he had been injected with COVID-19.
“Absolutely not,” he replied quickly, “and I won’t get it. Let me clarify… not at this time, as everything is quite new. He blamed not only how quickly vaccines gained federal approval, but also changes in coronavirus advice from senior officials – but he was fundamentally suspicious of anything to do with COVID-19, because he felt he had been politicized. “I just felt the left was using it as an excuse to shoot its agenda, get rid of Trump,” he said.
Elsewhere in the United States, some people have not had the same chance to roll the dice on COVID-19, during what should be the last days of the pandemic but which – most frustratingly – are not. In and around Springfield, Missouri, on the edge of the Ozarks and deep in the heart of Trump country in a dark red state, the number of cases has increased in recent days. Some 17 people – none of them fully vaccinated, like more than 60% for their compatriots in Missouri – died there from the virus from June 21 to July 4, and one of the city’s hospitals ran out of ventilators for a period of time. time.
“A lot of people talk about it as if it was a personal decision, but it is a decision that absolutely affects the whole community, so we need more people to get the vaccine,” said Aaron Schekorra. , a county public health official, at the Kansas City Star. “The pandemic is not over.
No it is not. Increasingly, we are moving towards two Americas – one predominantly vaccinated and the other not, separated and at unequal risk of disease and death. And more and more, this division is political. A striking map shows that almost every state in the United States that has vaccinated more than 70% of adults voted for the Democrat for president in 2016 and 2020 (the exception is here in Pennsylvania, which Trump won in 2016). Meanwhile, nearly every state with the lowest vaccination rates (except Nevada) has gone for Trump in at least one of the last two elections.
If you live in a heavily inoculated area like Philadelphia and its suburbs, where people spent hours reloading web pages last winter in their rush to get a vaccine, vaccine reluctance – which for some people turns into in refusal of provocative vaccine – is very difficult to understand. .
As the rate of new injections slows – the nation has fallen just short of President Joe Biden’s seemingly achievable goal of 70% adult immunization by July 4 – and dangerous mutations like the delta variant are emerging. spread among the non-stung, the dream of collective immunity is receding. . Completely vaccinated since mid-April, I resumed wearing the mask in stores, as America once again snatches defeat from the clutches of victory. Why the hell is this happening?
Psychology experts who have studied vaccine reluctance for years – before the COVID-19 pandemic – say it’s not that the unvaccinated need more information, because the issues are really focused on the deep-rooted moral foundations of people. “People have a deep moral intuition that guides them,” Jeff Huntsinger, a social psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago who has studied the philosophy of vaccine-refusal people, told me this week.
Huntsinger and other experts who have studied vaccine skeptics say they frequently espouse a few worldviews. One is about the concept of purity, which means many are expressing concern about the introduction of a seemingly unnatural foreign substance – like the new COVID-19 vaccines – into their bodies. The other – which we also started to see last summer, in the strong backlash by some against wearing masks – focuses on a powerful belief in personal freedom, which is also correlated with a strong mistrust of masks. towards authority figures who tell them what to do.
“Medical freedom is an individual right that should NEVER be violated and anyone who thinks otherwise has no place in our government,” right-wing provocator Candace Owens tweeted of her family’s vaccine refusal to its 2.7 million followers on Wednesday, joining a growing conservative chorus.
Also on Wednesday, Texas GOP congressman Chip Roy tweeted an image of a needle with the “COME INJECT IT” taunt, a twist on a long-standing Texas independence meme.
To be fair, pro-Trump conservatives who flaunt their vaccine refusal aren’t the only reason the United States is struggling to approach herd immunity to coronaviruses. Another obstacle is that of the millions of Americans who are largely disconnected from civic life – young people subject to delusions of medical invincibility, or people living in poverty, or people struggling with other physical ailments or diseases. mental health or addiction. Before COVID-19, anti-vax theories often circulated among wealthy liberal enclaves. And distrust of authority and government (for understandable reasons) is also high in some black and brown communities.
But experts like Huntsinger note that there is a strong correlation between the philosophical traits of vaccine refusal – including the libertarian belief in “medical freedom” and mistrust of authority figures like the national leader of. infectious health, Dr Anthony Fauci – and modern conservatism. This would certainly explain a large part of the growing dividing line between the red state and the blue state.
Indeed, as the issue of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 becomes increasingly politicized, Huntsinger noted, the refusal is starting to be shrouded in the strong power of what experts call the “negative partisan” – the voters forming opinions largely opposed to the political party they carry I don’t like… or I hate. Since the coronavirus hit U.S. shores in early 2020, it’s people conservatives tend to hate – scientists, journalists and, until the Biden era, Democratic politicians – who have been pushing for shutdowns. tighter, masks and now vaccines, and that clearly causes some of them to get up. Huntsinger said that when elite officials issue stay-at-home orders, “people who score high on freedom are like, ‘(Beep) you, I’m not doing that.'”
On Tuesday, amid concerns about the delta variant and the increase in the number of cases, Biden said the government would step up voluntary efforts to encourage citizens to get vaccinated, including door-to-door campaigns in communities. low rate neighborhoods. “Do it now for yourself and for your loved ones, for your neighborhood, for your country,” he said. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s a patriotic thing to do.”
But negative partisanship suggests that the problem is not so much the message as mistrust or aversion to messengers. As the cycle of political rotation intensifies, sources the Conservatives trust – including the audience-hungry Fox News channel – are exploiting the crisis and risking the lives of their own viewers in the process. On Wednesday evening, under the banner “THE LEFT STEPS UP COVID VACCINE PRESSURE CAMPAIGN,” Fox host Laura Ingraham greeted a doctor who insisted that “unless we really have a case convincingly, no one under the age of 30 should receive any of these vaccines ”.
This is bad news, and it is morally odious that Fox News is sharing this with a few million viewers. In fact, I have a certain empathy for ordinary people who might get sick because they are so caught up in their politics and beliefs right now, who have convinced themselves that not wearing a mask or getting the vaccine says something. thing to their friends and neighbors that they are part of “the good crowd”. But there should be no mercy for high-definition hucksters in political offices or the media so eager to exploit a crisis for personal gain, regardless of who gets sick or dies.
Instead of making political propaganda and promoting a lifestyle that rejects modern science, imagine an America in which Fox News broadcast the testimony of a Springfield, Missouri, COVID-19 patient, Russell Taylor, 42 .
“I was one of those Americans who were like skeptics, not knowing who to trust,” he said in a video for Cox Health. “So I pulled back a little bit, that if God allows it, then it must be.” In June, he was rushed to hospital by ambulance and placed on a ventilator, with double pneumonia. He was still hospitalized after three weeks. “Somewhere in July,” he has now said, “I think it would be wise to get the whole family vaccinated, because my position on this is… God created medicine too.
Bunch is a national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. © 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.