Analysis: The GOP vaccine resistance Biden faces has deep roots

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Twenty-six percent of Republicans told the Kaiser Family Foundation they definitely would not get the shot, compared to 14% of independents and 2% of Democrats. Foundation poll director Liz Hamel said the Republican number had not budged statistically significantly in a year.

It is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Parts of Europe, including those marked by anti-government and populist nationalism within the GOP, have maintained immunization levels, such as Germany and Austria.

But these countries and others with advanced economies have still fully immunized larger shares of their population than America’s 60%. CNN data, for example, shows Germany at 68%, Austria at 66%, Australia at 73% and Canada at 76%.

America has a century of experience with the problem. What Biden now faces vexed predecessors in the battles against smallpox, polio, measles and swine flu.

“Vaccine resistance is as old as vaccination itself,” observed Elena Conis, medical historian at the University of California, Berkeley.

Resistance typically stems from three overlapping sources: religious objections, assertion of individual rights, and disputes over medical risks. As early as the Asian flu in 1957, the Gallup poll measured higher resistance to vaccines among Republicans.

The evolution of the GOP since then has made it even more resilient. Its most influential constituents – evangelical white Christians, workers, rural dwellers – feel increasingly threatened by the racial, cultural and economic changes of the 21st century and hostile to the well-educated “elites” in government and big cities.
A striking change: In a Gallup poll this summer, only 45% of Republicans expressed confidence in science, up from 72% in 1975. The corresponding 2021 figures among Democrats and Independents were 79% and 65%. And polls show Republicans are much more likely to say the dangers of the coronavirus have been exaggerated.

Trump bowed to that sentiment and ignited it last year. He clashed with public health authorities even when tracking them could have helped him politically by tempering the pandemic.

He has carried out attacks on Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost infectious disease expert. Trump has championed vaccine development from the start – and got vaccinated himself after surviving Covid-19 – but has not aggressively promoted vaccinations since.
Biden followed the well-known vaccination campaign manual. It starts with making photos readily available and then uses persuasion. In 1956, public health officials wooed reluctant youth by giving Elvis Presley the new polio vaccine on television; Biden enlisted pop star Olivia Rodrigo, among others.
The next step is concrete vaccination incentives, such as the $ 100 payments Biden asked states to offer to those who were previously reluctant. Government mandates are the last resort.
“I waited until July to talk about tenure, because I tried everything else I could,” the chairman told CNN’s Anderson Cooper at a CNN town hall in October.

At that time, the Delta variant was fueling a pandemic resurgence after months of declining coronavirus cases. Some experts, like former Baltimore health commissioner Dr Leana Wen, a CNN contributor, say earlier terms could have blunted Delta.

“If he had presented (warrants) earlier, there is a good chance that it would have put people off,” retorted Andy Slavitt, a White House adviser for Covid during the first months of the administration. In past vaccination campaigns, the warrants triggered negative reactions.

So far, government and private sector mandates have succeeded in pushing the hesitant without melting down unconditional resistance. The share of blacks and Hispanics reporting having received at least one dose, once far behind the share of whites, has moved closer to parity.

Last week, Biden outlined new measures to encourage vaccinations in hopes of preventing a winter wave. He has avoided requiring proof of vaccination for domestic air travel, which White House staff say could scold airports, hurt the economy and anger voters.

It has defied outside health experts, who say the last resort to use vaccination to quell the pandemic has been reached.

“There is no more persuasion,” said Anna Kirkland, professor of health policy at the University of Michigan.

But even that, history shows, would only lead Biden’s vaccination campaign so far.

“Catch as many as you can,” Conis concluded. “With vaccines, it’s usually the best we can do. “

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