Vaccine Dissent and the Challenges of Solidarity in a Pandemic | Opinion

On June 2, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci projected "cautious optimism" that a viable COVID-19 vaccine will be available in early 2021. His statement raises questions that dovetail with concerns that have been repeated across news and social media over the past months. Will people accept a coronavirus vaccine developed at "warp speed?" Will misinformation about vaccine dangers threaten vaccine acceptance? What steps can be taken to persuade people now to have confidence in a future vaccine?

These questions, though sincere and well-meaning, reiterate an opposition that is familiar in the U.S., especially in contemporary vaccine discussions. Implicitly or explicitly, these questions ask what we should do about them, fortifying divisions between a moral "us" and a dangerous "them."

As in many other contexts, the "us/them" dichotomy has become a destructive paradigm that often results in disengagement as a solution to conflict. If your neighbors disagree with you, just don't talk to them. If a Facebook "friend" shares a questionable story, "unfriend" him/her. As we move further into these hardened demarcations, old ties that bind no longer seem to hold. Our divisions—what make "us" smarter, kinder, better citizens than "them"—matter more.

Our research over the last decade has shown that so-called anti-vaxxers have become a convenient "other" for public health advocates, who blame them for outbreaks of infectious disease. It's easier to address a vilified other who won't listen to science or follow government health recommendations than to admit that some of our neighbors' ideas about health, bodily autonomy and infectious disease make them question mandated vaccination. It's hard to admit that a fragmented health care system makes vaccination logistically difficult for some people—and easier just to blame a vocal minority ideologically opposed to vaccination.

For many people, the idea of a large proportion of the population not accepting a COVID-19 vaccine is scary. For others, the prospect of a quickly developed vaccine forced on them by government is equally scary. Blaming the latter group for risking the health of the former is unlikely to solve the dilemma—after all, even after significant measles outbreaks in 2019, those opposed to vaccination continued their activism against restrictive mandates. Part of the issue is that these groups trust different authorities—or, in some instances, no authorities except themselves. Persuasion in light of such radical disagreement is unlikely, because persuasion cannot happen without a set of mutual concerns.

Essentially, we lack a common language to voice our concerns and witness them to each other. Our challenge, then, is to name our mutual concerns and enact the forms of solidarity that can emerge from them.

We see three concerns shared by vaccine supporters and vaccine skeptics alike:

Uncertainty. Our present and future are characterized by unknowns that even the best science cannot fix. We do not know if a second wave of COVID-19 will materialize, if schools will open in the fall or if it's truly safe for us to fully engage in activities that were staples of our pre-lockdown lives. Questions about what we should do next are complex and controversial. Uncertainty is unsettling for all of us.

Dr. Anthony Fauci behind President Trump
Dr. Anthony Fauci behind President Trump Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Lockdown is hard. It has been hard to stay at home—and not everyone has a home to stay in. The reasons for state guidelines have not always been clear, and we worry about access to everyday necessities, the health of our children and parents and how long we can continue. The sudden pause in face-to-face social interaction and employment has been traumatic for everyone.

Pandemic effects have been unequal. Some of us have been able to work from home with relative ease, while others have lost jobs or have been forced to work in potentially dangerous conditions in order to keep the economy and supply chains going. The virus itself appears to take advantage of health disparities, demonstrated through higher morbidity and mortality in communities of color. Other inequalities become more salient as the pandemic continues.

Identifying our mutual concerns illuminates how unproductive inflammatory forecasting is, leading to greater division and extreme thinking. Instead of stoking hysteria about the 30 or 50 percent of Americans wary of a vaccine, reporters and pundits should remember that those people are their neighbors, colleagues, friends and relatives. Concerns about side effects or illness from the vaccine, lack of concern about getting ill and belief in natural herd immunity are all common reasons for vaccine dissent in ordinary times, as is wariness of Big Pharma's vaccine liability immunity and their profit motive. These issues continue to influence perspectives during the current pandemic.

There is no room for "us/them" in the battle against COVID-19. There is only "we."

Bernice L. Hausman, Professor and Chair of Humanities, Penn State College of Medicine, is the author of Anti/Vax: Reframing the Vaccination Controversy (Cornell University Press 2019).

Heidi Y. Lawrence, Assistant Professor of English, George Mason University, is the author of Vaccine Rhetorics (Ohio State University Press 2020).

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.