Why Aren't People Getting Vaxxed? Because of Your Hypocrisy | Opinion

When former President Barack Obama hosted a birthday bash amid a COVID-19 surge across the country, it was not an unusual or one-off situation. As in many contexts, it's not the rules that anger American tax-payers so much as the myriad exceptions to them—and who those exceptions always seem to favor.

In many situations in the U.S., particularly during these Plague Years, citizens have found themselves constrained by a remarkably detailed sets of rules. At the same time, these rules seem beset by exceptions, particularly for the "politically correct." And it is often taboo to discuss them honestly.

Take my own state of Kentucky, a relatively relaxed purple state. Today in Kentucky, anyone entering a state building is required to wear at least one mask and socially distance, regardless of COVID vaccination status. For much of 2020, all so-called non-essential businesses—gyms, hair salons, nail salons, spas, concert venues, entertainment facilities, even doctor and dentist offices—were shuttered. Governor Andy Beshear banned gatherings of more than 10 people, an unexceptional edict across the U.S.

But almost immediately, exceptions to the drum-beat of messaging of "shelter in place" and "save just one life" emerged as massive marches and riots swept the country. One of the most memorable features of 2020—right alongside the demand that we spend all day inside—was the giant street protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd. Between 15 and 26 million people took part in these public rallies; many many citizens were outside, all day, during the apex of the pandemic.

And many of the nation's leading infectious disease experts suddenly began to encourage leaving home to protest. More than 1,200 public health professionals signed on to a letter, reprinted in full by CNN, endorsing the George Floyd protests and calling on elected officials not to use COVID concerns as an "excuse" to shut any of them down.

"We do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission," the signatory doctors said. In fact, these were "vital to the national public health," in that they challenged another real threat in United States: "the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy." Perhaps most remarkably, the physicians restricted their support for protesting only to events on the Left: "This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives."

Got it.

anti-vaxxers
Anti-vaccination protesters pray and rally near City Hall following the Los Angeles City Council vote earlier this week to draw up an ordinance to require proof of vaccination to enter many public indoor spaces in Los Angeles, August 14, 2021. DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

It is unsurprising that in the face of such open double standards, many citizens have moved beyond amused cynicism and into contempt for "expertise" and the law. To many taxpayers where I live and no doubt across the country, the sheer hypocrisy was stultifying and remains so.

For almost a year later, not much has changed. With "Delta" surging, COVID paranoia is again on the rise, and the papers are full of suggestions about double-masking and harshly worded criticism of anyone refusing vaccination, including from The Economist ("The Republican Anti-Vaxx Delusion"), Bloomberg ("There's a Logic to Anti-Vaxx Republicans' Irrationality"), the Washington Post ("Republicans Unleashed a Deadly Vaccine Hesitancy"), and The Atlantic ("Delta is ruining the summer, and it's anti-vaxxers' fault").

But, again, there are obvious logical gaps in the narrative, which are Not to Be Discussed, but which citizens can hardly avoid noticing. "Wear two masks and then stay home"-style regulations seem never to extend to money-making million-person festivals such as Lollapalooza, which just took place in Chicago—although there was substantial criticism of the Sturgis biker rally taking place in a redder state.

Nor is much said about the potential impact of illegal immigration on U.S. COVID caseload, despite the fact that undocumented crossings of the Southern border are currently surging, and a remarkable 18 percent of migrants leaving Border Patrol facilities recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Perhaps most notably, the almost univariate focus of the mainstream media on MAGA conservatives as anti-vaxxers ignores equivalent or higher non-vaccination rates across most minority communities. Among Black Americans—many of whom know the word "Tuskeegee" as something more than the name of a college—only 38 percent of individuals have accepted even one dose of any coronavirus vaccine. (Witty conservatives like Will Chamberlain have gone viral on Twitter for pointing out that vaccine passports could arguably amount to a form of de facto segregation, and the Mayor of Boston has famously compared forcing minorities to "show their papers" to slavery and similar "unsavory parts of American history.")

Sadly, there's evidence to suggest that the real reason people may be so hesitant to get vaccinated is the crisis in credibility of the medical establishment, which it sacrificed to political ends. And the effects on the citizenry of COVID hypocrisy may take a while to fade. No one likes taking orders, but few people truly object to following consistent rules that make sense. What people do object to is following what seem to be illogical rules with dozens of exceptions carved out for those favored by one political faction or the other.

The anger caused by this hypocrisy correlates with recent findings that only 52 percent of Americans have a high level of trust in the CDC, just 29 percent of Americans (and far fewer conservatives) trust the national media, and exactly 9 percent of us have a positive view of Congress.

To fix this, leaders might just have to return to some very old and simple standards: Make consistent rules based on actual empirical facts, and then apply them fairly to all.

Wilfred Reilly is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University.

The views in this article are the writer's own.