By Eugene Robinson [September 30, 2021]
The most senseless and self-destructive battle in this country today is not between Democrats and fellow Democrats, despite what the headlines might suggest. It is between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated — a split with dire consequences for the nation and the world.
It is mystifying to me, and to many others, that such a divide could possibly exist. Yet an estimated 70 million Americans who are eligible to protect themselves against being hospitalized or dying from covid-19 have not done so. To be as generous as possible, some of those people may still worry about losing days off work to side effects or fear that getting a shot could reveal their undocumented status. But the selfishness and foolishness of people who don’t face those obstacles endanger not only their own health but everyone else’s as well.
Not getting vaccinated is indeed a decision, at this point, given the practically universal access to safe and effective vaccines that the entire nation enjoys. Guaranteeing protection from this highly infectious and deadly disease is no more difficult or complicated than dropping by your neighborhood pharmacy once or twice and rolling up your sleeve. Serious side effects are astonishingly rare, and more routine ones are manageable and often, as was true for me, nonexistent. And the benefits are massive, both for individuals and society.
Are you a lover of freedom? Do you hate all those covid-19 restrictions? Have you been impatient for life to get back to the old normal? Then get yourself vaccinated immediately and do everything you can to make sure your family and friends do the same. Aim your torch-and-pitchfork anger at the covid-19 virus — not at the experts and officials who are trying to save your life even as circumstances and available evidence shift around them.
The willfully unvaccinated are covid-19’s enablers. They are giving the virus an enormous supply of potential hosts, allowing it to thrive and evolve — perhaps someday in a way that evades the vaccines. They are filling intensive-care hospital beds and keeping beleaguered doctors and nurses under constant, and unnecessary, siege. They are prolonging a crisis that we have the resources to get under control.
Incredibly, cynical politicians are actively boosting the death toll. Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has sought to further his presidential hopes by pandering to the anti-vaccination crowd, suffered 14,334 covid-19 deaths this summer, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) earned membership in the Pandemic Hall of Shame on Wednesday by tweeting that “I stand with” the handful of National Basketball Association players who have publicly refused to be vaccinated. Similarly enshrined are Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and a host of other ambitious Republicans who seek to curry favor with the party’s populist base by painting vaccination as a question of free choice rather than an imperative of public health.
Ultimately, however, there comes a point where this crisis is not about unscrupulous presidential wannabes. Yes, they may be persuading some of the tens of millions of holdouts, but they’re also doing it to win the approval of those who have decided not to protect themselves and others. Given the negative impact these free-riders are having on the rest of us, we have every right to be ticked off.
Fortunately, there is an intervention that works to eliminate vaccine hesitancy: employer mandates. If workers are told they must be vaccinated as a condition of keeping their jobs, it turns out that the vast majority comply.
In early August, United Airlines announced that all of its roughly 67,000 U.S. employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or be fired. On Thursday, the airline announced that 99 percent of its workers had complied — and that 320 workers who had neither gotten their shots nor filed for exemptions would be terminated, and are perfectly free to work somewhere else.
It’s clear now that we will be living with covid-19 for some time, though hopefully as an endemic disease like the flu rather than in a state of pandemic urgency. The key word there is “living” — the vaccines give this country the chance to reduce covid-19 to more of a nuisance than a plague.
Millions of Americans who received the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago are now eligible to get a booster shot, which experts hope will offer additional protection against covid-19. Boosters for those who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots will likely soon be offered as well. Those additional shots will make us safer — but if the unvaccinated did their duty, we would all be safer still.
And yes, it is a duty. If you refuse to get vaccinated — without a medical reason — you are failing your family, your community and your nation. Just get the shot. Today.
Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.