The Problem with Vaccine Shaming

On May 19, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by James Hohmann titled “Don’t Pay People To Get the Covid Vaccine. Shame Them.” The Post has changed the title of this piece to “The Moral Hazard of Vaccine Giveaways,” but I’m afraid they’ve already let their real message leak out. Besides, the original title is still in the article’s URL. 

Shame those anti-science morons who refuse to follow the government-recommended procedure of protecting themselves against a disease they are extremely unlikely to get with an emergency-use authorization vaccine that has not been tested over a significant period of time. “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” says the Washington Post masthead, as they gleefully run around unscrewing light bulbs. 

It never fails to impress people on both sides of the debate how we can start with the same premise and reach such different conclusions. In this case, Hohmann starts with an historically correct observation about Polio: “People recognized Jonas Salk’s 1953 breakthrough . . . for the miracle it was. Parents raced to inoculate their kids to spare them from the iron lung.” The government “did not need to bribe anyone to take the Polio vaccine.”

But people aren’t similarly running to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Huh.

Hohmann cites a recent poll showing one in four Americans probably or definitely will not take the vaccine. Given that Biden’s handlers say they expect to have 70 percent of Americans inoculated by July, we can gather by that time basically everyone who is willing to take it voluntarily will have done so. So what’s wrong with everyone else?

I look at this situation and conclude that perhaps Polio and COVID-19 aren’t analogous, and that the relative importance of taking the two vaccines may be different.

Hohmann instead concludes that Americans are different: For various reasons like “mounting skepticism of science” and “a diminishing sense of obligation to the common good,” Hohmann has realized that “this is not Jonas Salk’s America.” Unfortunately, he says, today’s America is chock-full of people who “selfishly ignore experts.” 

Presumably, these would be the experts on the Washington Post editorial staff, whose dicta included arguing against a travel ban from China because “we should beware an aggressive government response to the coronavirus.”

At this point, I have met more doctors who got the vaccine to reassure their patients than because they thought they really needed it. I’ve covered that question at length in an earlier piece.

Polio affected the young and healthy. Coronavirus, like a flu, does the reverse—it affects the old and the weak. As a young and reasonably fit man, I’m neither likely to get COVID-19 nor to be laid out if I do. Chances are I’ve already been exposed and have beaten it off with no symptoms. Polio doesn’t mutate. It appears that Coronaviruses do, again like the flu. Every year we get a new strain of the flu and a new optional flu shot covered by most insurance. Anyone who wants to get the shot gets it. I usually get it, unless I forget, because I know the long-tested vaccine technology won’t harm me. It’s low risk versus zero risk, so I get the shot.

With COVID-19, I still have that low level of risk, but I don’t know what the long-term effects of this vaccine will be. I’d rather be safe than sorry. Does this make me selfish?

Only if you think the vaccine doesn’t work. Because if you’ve got the vaccine, then you should be safe no matter whether I get it or not. And indeed, once everyone has been vaccinated who wants to be, there is no reason to insist that anyone, vaccinated or not, continue to wear masks in any environment.

If you really want to persuade me to take the vaccine, all you have to do is show that it is effective and harmless over time. Financial pressure isn’t necessary, and neither is “shaming”—conceptually reminiscent of the Chinese “struggle sessions,” where a victim confesses his sin against society and everyone spends a few minutes screaming and hurling abuse at him to cleanse him. 

Such techniques are very effective, but you need a totalitarian dictatorship to make them work.

And after all, the foundation of every totalitarian society is the urge to protect people from themselves. Every time the Post runs a brilliant op-ed discussing how people can be forced to get vaccinated for the good of society, all I can think is—well, that’s clever. Do they want to persuade people who disagree with them? Or do they really wish these people could just be made to disappear?

About Dan Gelernter

Dan Gelernter is a writer and entrepreneur living in Connecticut.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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