GOP has become a party heedless of public health, but that could change

What would it take to unite a deeply divided country? The answer is supposed to be a crisis. Under the threat of a dire emergency, Americans are supposed to pull together and work for a common purpose.

That’s what happened 20 years ago after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. At least for a year, until September 2002, when the Bush administration announced the “rollout” of the Iraq War. That’s when all the old divisions came roaring back.

Almost 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11. More than 600,000 Americans have died in the coronavirus pandemic — and the casualties keep mounting. But the pandemic is not doing what a national crisis is supposed to do. It’s not bringing the country together. Instead, as President Biden said on July 29, “America is divided between the majority of eligible people who are vaccinated and those who are not.” It’s the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.

About half of adult Americans have not been vaccinated, and about half of them say it’s likely they will never get the vaccine. Apparently, many of them don’t see the virus as a personal threat. It seems to have something to do with education. In a recent Monmouth University poll, more than a quarter of non-college-educated Americans said they are “not at all concerned” about the coronavirus outbreak, compared with just 17 percent of people with a college degree.

The unconcerned appear to be taking their cues from former President Trump, who downplayed the threat even after he was infected and hospitalized. “I always wanted to play it down,” Trump said in a March 2020 interview. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” And have it threaten his reelection, as, in the end, it did.

That all may be changing. The delta variant is now surging among the unvaccinated. “Seeing their friends get sick and local hospitals fill up again with COVID patients may speed [the vaccinated] along and add to their ranks,” the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks vaccination rates, predicts.

But ignorance is just one factor in vaccine resistance. Politics is another. A new wave of defiance has emerged with the debate over vaccine mandates.

As the fall approaches, schools and businesses are reopening at the same time as the pandemic is spreading. “These deaths are largely preventable, and from a public health perspective, that’s inexcusable,” Michael Saag, a physician and associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama, said.

The debate over mandates is a debate over the role of government, which is a core partisan issue. Many Republicans and conservatives see lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccination requirements as violations of individual liberty. They are fighting for what they call “medical freedom” and parental rights (one group calls itself “Unmask Our Children”). House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted that the new masking guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been “conjured up by liberal government officials who want to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”

Imagine what would happen if the U.S. government tried to mandate “green passports” for vaccinated citizens like those being issued in Europe and Israel. Biden has issued vaccination mandates for federal workers and contractors, and the Pentagon is seeking a vaccination mandate for military personnel. There is no debate about this in the scientific community. An article in the current Scientific American is headlined “Vaccine Mandates are Lawful, Effective and Based on Rock-Solid Science.”

While 31 percent of Republicans say they likely will never get the vaccine, the majority of Republicans are not stupid. In the Monmouth poll, the majority of Republicans said they are already vaccinated or plan to get the vaccine as soon as possible. The problem is that a majority of Republicans also say they are “not too concerned” or “not at all concerned” about another pandemic surge happening if not enough people get vaccinated (52 percent of Republicans feel this way, compared with only 8 percent of Democrats). Is the current surge in COVID-19 cases mostly due to “people not being willing to get a vaccine”? Just 29 percent of Republicans say it is, compared with 68 percent of Democrats.

The problem is that too many Americans see masking and vaccinations as matters of personal choice, not public health. That drives scientists and Democrats crazy. “The only way forward is to start embracing mandates,” writes Joseph G. Allen of the Harvard School of Public Health, although he acknowledges that this may have to be done more by private institutions such as businesses and unions than by government: “Instead of mandating, make the burden of being unvaccinated so high that people comply.”

The answer may be to treat refusal to vaccinate the same way we treat drunk driving. Drunk driving is not simply a personal choice. It’s also a threat to the health and safety of others and must be penalized. But drunk driving was never linked to a political party. Vaccine resistance is.

The movement to require vaccination may not unify the country right away, but in the long run, it’s likely to change the public consensus. Mothers Against Drunk Driving did exactly that. Where is Mothers Against Unvaccinated Children?

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags anti-mask anti-vaccination movement anti-vax COVID economic recovery COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccination in the United States Delta variant Donald Trump herd immunity Joe Biden kaiser family foundation Kevin McCarthy pandemic economy Public health Trump base trumpism Vaccination Vaccine Vaccine hesitancy

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