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Robert Reich: Why America Trails Every Other Wealthy Nation In Vaccinations – OpEd

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The biggest reason America isn’t back to pre-COVID normal is because so many Americans remain unvaccinated – the lowest rate of any advanced country.

Why is this?

It’s easy to blame red America. In October, 25 out of every 100,000 residents of counties Trump won by wide margins died from Covid. That’s more than three times higher than the rate in heavily Biden counties (7.8 per 100,000). Here’s something else: October was the fifth consecutive month that the percentage gap between the death rates in Trump counties and Biden counties widened. Counties where Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote have an even higher average Covid death toll than counties where Trump won at least 60 percent.

And why is this? Because Trump counties have the highest unvaccinated rates in the United States. Almost every reliably blue state now has a higher vaccination rate than almost every reliably red state.

There are some obvious reasons why Trump voters have been hesitant to get vaccinated. Trump politicized the issue — making the jab a hallmark of his peculiar form of rightwing populism. He and Fox News (and their social media outlets) also spread false rumors and conspiracy theories about the vaccine. (By the time Trump finally called on people to get vaccinated, the damage was already done.) In other words, the underlying problem is the same trifecta of rightwing media, inadequate education, and rejection of science that gave us Trump in the first place.

That sounds right to me. But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that several anti-vaxxers live around me — in the bluest region of the bluest county of the bluest state in America. I’ve known several of them for years. They are well-informed and well-educated. But they’re as opposed to getting a shot as any Trump anti-vaxxer.

Some are ex-hippies, now in their late 60s and early 70s, who regard their bodies as “sacred” and don’t want anything or anyone to “invade” it.

One, who grows her own food and lives by herself in a cabin not far from here told me she didn’t want anything going into her body that she didn’t control. (When I asked her whether she had been vaccinated against smallpox, measles, diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough, she told me she assumed so, but was too small to have had knowledge or control.)   

Others – also in their late 60s and early 70s – don’t trust Big Pharma. They see Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson as greedy global corporations in search of people to exploit and tax havens to park their exorbitant profits.  “Why in hell would I trust a fu*king thing Pfizer says or does?” one of them asked me.  

None of these people trusts the government. Their generation (which is also mine) came to political consciousness during the Vietnam War – a time when the American flag became an emblem of fascism, particularly in lefty coastal enclaves. They now believe government has been so corrupted by big money that they don’t trust agencies charged with protecting the public.

I’m sympathetic to their distrust of both Big Pharma and Big Government. But this doesn’t mean the science is wrong.

One of them referred me to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that about a third of the drugs approved by the FDA between 2001 and 2010 had safety problems after reaching the market. I checked and he’s correct. But he left out a critical fact: as soon as the FDA discovered the problems it forced manufacturers to pull the drugs or issue warnings.

Deep down, I think these blue anti-vaxxers are motivated by something different from mere distrust. When I pointed out that they could well be endangering others (including me), they remained unmoved. When I suggested that their concerns, however valid, had to be weighed against the public’s overall interest in conquering this epidemic, they said they didn’t care.

My conclusion: They’re infected, not by COVID but by a narcissism that refuses even to consider the risks and costs they’re imposing on others. I can’t say for sure that Trump anti-vaxxers share this narcissism, although the leader of their cult – Donald Trump – surely does. (And, of course, my sample size was so small I can’t even generalize to all blue anti-vaxxers.)

It seems to me that in our haste to blame Trump and the culture that produced him for why the rate of vaccinations in America trails every other wealthy country, we’re missing a character trait that may offer a fuller explanation. This trait is found among Democrats and Independents in blue America as well as Republicans in Trumpland. In fact, I think it’s been near the core of the American personality since before the founding of the nation — a stubborn, selfish individualism.

What do you think?

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Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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