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Why do so many still say no to vaccinations?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Not a day passes without a headline that some noted personality tests positive for COVID. The danger of COVID infection still roars, taking a ravenous toll on thousands. Yet, one figure remains virtually unchanged: Nearly half of Americans still say no to vaccinations.

A mountain of polls, studies and interviews have been conducted to figure out just why millions of Americans doggedly refuse the shots. The usual reasons are evangelicals, or religious skeptics, influenced by Fox News and assorted right-wing anti-government conspiracy theories. Hard-core Trump loyalists who believe COVID is a government mind-control hoax. Or they are just plain scared of getting a needle stuck in their arm.

The fear, paranoia and plain ignorance around the COVID debate are there in abundance. I’ve noted that in the several informal polls I’ve taken on Facebook. In the polls, I asked some variant of this: “Now that there’s a COVID vaccine and it’s been available for months, will you get vaccinated?” Most said no. There were dozens of responses spanning all ethnicities, genders and age groups.

Initially, the number of minorities, especially Blacks, who consistently said no to vaccination was much more significant — even though Blacks and Hispanics from the start of the pandemic have been hospitalized and died from COVID in disproportionate numbers to whites.

However, subsequent studies of debunked the widespread belief that it was primarily minorities, religious zealots, or Fox and GOP anti-vaxxers. Anti-vax sentiment can’t be pinned on any one group. The resisters cut across all lines and age groups. The single most significant reason many refuse vaccinations is the same reason countless Americans refuse any immunization: fear and ignorance. Many surveys have shown that many Americans are less likely to get vaccinated against nearly every infectious disease.

Vaccines do work and have saved tens of thousands of lives. That has certainly proven to be the case with the COVID vaccines. Yet, the massive public health education campaigns on the importance of vaccinations have done little to scrub away the suspicion, reluctance and outright fear among many Americans of vaccinations.

Some thought that Blacks who refused vaccinations were mindful of the  infamous Tuskegee experiment. The ghastly experiment made Guinea pigs of dozens of unsuspecting poor Black males infected with syphilis. For decades, they were deliberately allowed to suffer and die without any treatment, with the knowing consent of the U.S. Public Health Service.

That was decades ago. Still, the horror of the Tuskegee experiment has spun belief in supposed insidious conspiracies by conspirators in the medical world.

Distrust and racial double standards, fed by tons of quackery on social media about conspiracies, create the perfect storm of doubt over the merits of vaccines. Pew Research surveys find that a substantial number of Americans are deeply skeptical of the safety and risk of COVID and other vaccinations. Blacks are hardly unique in their skepticism about vaccines.

There is no underlying ulterior motive in encouraging vaccinations. The public must have complete trust that a vaccine is safe and effective to have maximum value in preventing outbreaks of infections and diseases. Without that trust, viral infections will continue to be a public health risk.

Given the daunting possibility of new outbreaks of COVID and perhaps other new variants posing grave threats, the blunt reality is that the millions who remain unvaccinated are walking time bombs. They pose health threats to those they encounter. That could be anybody, anywhere at any time. This is America; and individuals do have the freedom to say no to vaccinations. There is no way the government can or should forcibly compel vaccination.

Health risks from wallowing in false beliefs and even superstition about vaccines are real. This presents a clear and present danger that’s likely to be our perpetual torment.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.