One of the biggest battles in the war against COVID-19 probably won’t be against the virus but against a rising skepticism about science in general and vaccines in particular that predates the pandemic by years.
It’s a battle the rational among us urgently need to win because the instincts driving that rising and mostly unfounded skepticism denies us the benefit of effective public policy in many ways.
The most timely manifestation, however, is refusal — stated refusal, anyway — among many Americans to be vaccinated against COVID-19 infection.
Although attitudes about that have changed dramatically since the summer, before any vaccines had been tested and approved for use, the percent of Americans telling pollsters they’ll opt out is still pretty high.
In July, 66 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t be vaccinated, 34 percent said they would, according to a Gallup poll. Recent polls show almost exactly the opposite — 63 percent say they would be vaccinated, 37 percent said they wouldn’t, according to Gallup.
That’s good news for two reasons. For one, the more Americans are willing to be vaccinated, the closer we’ll get to achieving herd immunity — the point at which enough members of a population have been infected and recovered, or have been vaccinated, that viruses can be kept in check without extraordinary measures such as taken to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Estimates of what it would take to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19 start at about 60 percent of a population; some health authorities argue it’s closer to 80 percent.
Another is that it shows some Americans still can be persuaded by objective argument to change their minds about something.
That might be the most heartening part of Gallup’s recent poll.
Still, the number who claim they’ll opt out is higher than it should be and would have been a few decades ago.
That’s most likely an odd side effect of our economic and technological success since the end of World War II. We’ve been so far removed from the hard realities of human existence for so long that some of us have come to take a lot for granted, as if it were an irrevocable birthright.
It’s not of course, and you need not go back very far in history to reach a time when Americans still remembered how fragile and vulnerable we, our health, prosperity and safety really are against microbes.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, parents being conflicted about whether they’d have their children vaccinated against polio when that finally became possible in the 1950s.
They rushed to have it done; demanded it be done.
The same was true with smallpox, diphtheria, rubella, pertussis; it’s a long list.
Some parents today opt out of those routine vaccinations, which contributed hugely to the health and prosperity we enjoy today, making their own children and the larger community more vulnerable to those old maladies.
That’s driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of how we got to be a country that need not worry much about polio, smallpox, diphtheria, rubella, pertussis and on and on.
It was not by irrevocable birthright, but it was a benefit inherited from generations before who knew better because they had experienced what life was like before vaccines.
A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. We shouldn’t ever buy sight unseen anything people in power are selling, and there’s plenty in the COVID narrative worthy of skepticism.
The safety, effectiveness and vast benefit of vaccines against viruses is not among those, however. That’s long settled. Many of us walking around today are living, breathing proof of that, whether we realize it not.
We all should be vaccinated against COIVD-19 as soon as we’re able.
To do otherwise is to work against overcoming this new threat, to work against our own health and prosperity and is a disservice to the Americans who came before us and put so much into building the world we now enjoy.
• Michael A. Smith