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"The Unvaccinated May Not Be Who You Think"

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

From The New York Times, author Zeynep Tufekci discusses the true nature of those that are unvaccinated against COVID-19 in the U.S., exploring reasons for vaccine-hesitancy such as a lack of health insurance, knowledge about the vaccine and virus, and concerns over the vaccine's safety.

Picture obtained from The New York Times

Amidst the ongoing discussion about vaccine-hesitancy and the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Times Opinion columnist Zeynep Tufekci explores the true nature about the unvaccinated population in the United States, delving into discussions about concerns over the safety of the vaccine and general confusion surrounding the virus, its benefits, and its side-effects.

"There has been strikingly little research on the sociology of the pandemic, even though billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on vaccines."

Tufekci first contrasts the COVID-19 pandemic with the film Contagion, emphasizing the increasing death toll in the U.S. as a result of the “tens of thousands of people” that refuse to get inoculated each month. Although vaccines became free and accessible to adults in the U.S. early in the pandemic, the nation quickly fell behind in vaccination rates, surpassed by Canada, Japan, and “44 others.” Tufekci notes that this deceleration illustrates America’s public health failure, shown not only in our having among the highest deaths per capita, but also in regards to the level of vaccine and COVID-19 education received by those who are unwilling or waiting to get vaccinated.

“The assumption that some scientific breakthrough will swoop in to save the day is built too deeply into our national mythology — but as we’ve seen, again and again, it’s not true. The research and data we do have show that significant portions of the unvaccinated public were confused and concerned, rather than absolutely opposed to vaccines.”

While Tufekci does acknowledge the partisan divide over vaccination and the effects of misinformation, she highlights the inaccuracy of the wide-spread notion that unwillingness to get vaccinated is driven by anti-vaccine propaganda and conspiracy theories. Furthermore, Tufekci rebuts the predictions that vaccine mandates will lead to mass resignations and a drastic decrease in available labor. Using United Airlines as a case study, she describes how “When large employers, school districts, and hospital systems did finally mandate vaccines, people subject to mandates got vaccinated, overwhelmingly.”

“Some key research on the unvaccinated comes from the Covid States Project, an academic consortium that managed to scrape together resources for regular polling. It categorizes them as “vaccine-willing” and “vaccine-resistant,” and finds the groups almost equal in numbers among the remaining unvaccinated. (David Lazer, one of the principal investigators of the Covid States Project, told me that the research was done before the mandates, and that the consortium has limited funding, so they can poll only so often.) Furthermore, its research finds that the unvaccinated, overall, don’t have much trust in institutions and authorities, and even those they trust, they trust less: 71 percent of the vaccinated trust hospitals and doctors “a lot,” for example, while only 39 percent of the unvaccinated do.”

Tufekci spotlights the distrust in scientific and medical institutions and authorities, which she notes is exacerbated by the “sorry state of health insurance in this country and the deep inequities in health care.” Through such shortcomings, those that are unable to get accessible and comprehensive health care are more likely to distrust such institutions and authorities, including individuals in areas with reduced access to medical providers. As a result, are more vulnerable to misinformation and a lesser degree of health.

“Research on the unvaccinated by KFF from this September showed the most powerful predictor of who remained unvaccinated was not age, politics, race, income or location, but the lack of health insurance." It’s easy to say that (...) [the unvaccinated who died from COVID] should have been more informed or sought advice from a medical provider, except that many have no health care provider. As of 2015, one quarter of the population in the United States had no primary health care provider to turn to for trusted advice.”

Beyond sufficient access to medical providers lie another reason for distrust of medical and scientific institutions and authorities: the racial gap in satisfactory, accurate, and appropriate treatment. Historically, BIPOC patients have a notably negative relationship with medical and scientific institutions, having been subjected to medical mistreatment and even abuse. Such a history destabilizes the relationship between these minority communities and medicine and contributes to their current distrust and low vaccination rates. For example “only 42 percent of African Americans of all ages (and 49 percent among adults) are fully vaccinated — the lowest rate among all demographic groups tracked by the city.” Tufekci urges readers to consider “the problem of racialized health inequities with deep historic roots” and its “ongoing repercussions” to fully understand the concept of vaccine hesitancy and appropriate approaches to the issue.

Tufeksci concludes her article by suggesting a more “realistic, informed and deeply pragmatic approach” to remedy the shortcomings of our current line of action, simultaneously accounting for the “historic inequities in health care” and eliminating the spread of misinformation through conspiracists and anti-science ideology.

Read the full article here.

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