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16 December 2020

How a culture of mistrust is fuelling vaccine hesitancy in the US

The age of Trump has shown how quickly conspiracy theories can spread when people are unsure who to rely on for the truth. 

By Emily Tamkin

This week in the United States, as the country’s death toll from the pandemic crossed 300,000, healthcare workers received the first doses of a much anticipated vaccine. That the two milestones were reached in something close to tandem demonstrates the scale of the crisis that a vaccine could help end.

But for some in the United States, whether or not to take the vaccine remains a real question. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly a third of black adults and a quarter of Hispanic adults would probably or definitely not get the Covid-19 vaccine. Other research has observed that America’s history of using black and Hispanic Americans for medical research is one reason for reluctance among this demographic – yet the Kaiser study also found that roughly a quarter of white adults and 42 percent of Republicans said that they too would probably or definitely not get the vaccine.

“What would be surprising at this stage is if everyone fell in line,” Meredith Wadman, author of The Vaccine Race, told the New Statesman. With the polio vaccine in the 1950s, and in the 1960s with rubella, “there was no question” about whether to get vaccinated, said Wadman; “people couldn’t get those vaccines fast enough”. Today the story is very different. 

Among those who may refuse the vaccine for various reasons are a comparatively small sub-group of people fundamentally opposed to vaccines in general. This anti-vax movement doesn’t map perfectly onto the political spectrum, but its adherents can broadly be seen as having changed over the past decade – from comprising ultra-liberal parents worried about side effects on their children, to right-wing individuals concerned about overreach by the government and pharmaceutical companies. 

Anti-vaccination social media pages have also become fertile ground for radicalising people into believing in the QAnon conspiracy theory. And some think there’s more in common between the far right and anti-vaxxers than a penchant for conspiracy. 

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[see also: QAnon: how a paranoid delusion is growing in the UK]

This month, sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead published an article arguing that an allegiance to what they call “Christian nationalism” – which they define as a world-view that seeks to return “an exclusivist religious traditionalism” to the public sphere – is one of the strongest predictors of anti-vaccine attitudes.

Perry and Whitehead conducted a survey in which they asked respondents whether they would take the vaccine. There were three possible responses: yes, I’ll take it immediately; no, I won’t take it at all; and a third, where respondents said they wanted to wait to see how other people would react. 

“The more you affirm Christian nationalism, the more likely you are to say ‘I’m not going to take it at all’,” Perry told the New Statesman. The underlying revelation, Perry added, is about whose authority holds most sway with respondents: “Is it the Bible, or liberal scientists?” He noted that the survey was conducted while Trump was still in office, and that even though Trump touted the development of the vaccine, it was not enough to sway the true anti-vax believers into taking it.

The largest group of survey respondents, however, said that they wanted to wait and see. “Hesitancy,” said Wadman, is “much more widely shared across the political spectrum.”

Despite proper trials having been conducted on the vaccines that will be rolled out across the US, the speed with which they have been produced has led people to question whether they will really be safe, Wadman said.

Further concerns could arise from a likelihood that those who take the vaccine may feel sick for a day or two after. This means the vaccine is working – but if there isn’t good messaging about this side effect, it could deter people.

There are, of course, people working to get the correct information to the public. But information spaces are both polarised and contested. 

Respondents to Perry’s survey who said they were definitely not taking the vaccine also said that they got their news from Fox and Breitbart, two outlets that sit solidly on the political right (the latter was, for a time, run by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House strategist). 

More generally, the time of Trump has shown how quickly conspiracy theories can spread when people are unsure about who they can rely on for the truth. “The potential for the extent of that spread of misinformation is potentially catastrophic,” Perry said.

Limiting the spread of such distrust could, over the course of the next year, become synonymous with curbing the spread of the virus.