American Hesitancy and the Pandemic of the Unvaccinated

The United States is an enormously wealthy and influential country. It remains a global hegemon after suffering some of the worst effects of a global pandemic under four years of Donald Trump’s impulsive regime. Indeed, many American companies have produced vaccines against COVID-19 that solidify American influence in allied and dependent nations. Yet, for all the clout that could come with vaccinating much of the world, of which only about 25% has had a COVID vaccine, America is undermining its influence with the anti-vaccination disinformation rampant within its borders. 

Recently, American leaders like Anthony Fauci, a prominent American disease specialist and chief medical advisor to the white house, and president Joe Biden have indicated that if the country should remain on its current vaccination trajectory, it will not emerge from the pandemic anytime soon. With slightly more than half the eligible American population vaccinated, and new vaccination rates slowing to a trickle, it seems that this scenario is not so much a fear, but a looming reality. While Fauci has praised Republican leaders such as governors Asa Hutchinson and Ron DeSantis for encouraging skeptics to seek out shots in their under-vaccinated states, this has done little to change the pervasive belief among many Americans that the COVID-19 vaccine is worse than COVID, unnecessary, actively harmful, and possibly designed with malicious intent. What’s more, the Republican leaders who Fauci is now praising were among those who most prominently downplayed the virus’ significance and danger. This added a veneer of political legitimacy to anti-scientific and conspiratorial worldviews that are colloquially attributed to Republican political ideology. 

The United States is a large country, and with only half its eligible population vaccinated, over 100 million Americans are potentially exposed to increasingly dangerous and contagious forms of COVID. Many committed political partisans – the group of the unvaccinated who do so out of the belief that vaccines are somehow harmful – in older demographic groups are far more vulnerable. The United States has already seen over 600,000 people die. While the death rate has lowered considerably, new cases are predominantly among the unvaccinated. 

Since the United States is a global hegemon, and many vaccine distribution networks to poorer nations stem from America, anti-vaccination sentiment has an international ripple effect. If the United States falls into a fourth wave of COVID, and vaccine-resistant variants spring up, the global south’s vaccination program will be delayed and perhaps stopped entirely. There are already massive undersupply issues in India, Africa, and wealthier countries like Australia and Japan. Currently, the United States exports a large portion of the vaccines it produces. But, if boosters are needed in another round of vaccinations, American supply lines will once again be turned inwards. Thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of people could die in the United States. Meanwhile, millions more could die across the developing world.

While this is a very grim outlook, there is still time for U.S. federal and state governments to take appropriate measures. At the very least, they could mitigate the worst parts of a possible fourth wave. Fauci was right in praising once recalcitrant Republican politicians for their encouragement of vaccination, but it simply is not enough. France, a country in a very similar position vaccine-wise, is a model to look towards. French President Emmanuel Macron has made an unpopular decision (in some quarters) to mandate vaccination among all workers interacting with vulnerable groups. While the move has sparked protest and outrage among some, leading to large, passionate, and sometimes violent protests in Paris, it also has been a remarkable success in putting jabs in arms. Since the policy was announced on July 12th, over 3.7 million doses were scheduled. France recently delivered over 900,00 doses in one day.

While such a measure would likely meet more resistance in the United States, something resembling mandated or highly incentivized vaccination will be necessary to avoid more rolling lockdowns and potential inundation of the American healthcare system. This is something that the Biden administration and the Democratic party must pursue – if not for their sake, then for the rest of the world.

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