In the US, a growing number of people are blaming the stubborn rise of Covid-19 on the politicisation of the pandemic and are turning their ire on political leaders and the anti-vaccination movement. Bette Browne reports
The US was averaging approximately 1,000 Covid deaths a day and more than 150,000 new cases over the summer, with deaths rising in 44 of the country’s 50 states. The 10,991 Americans who died of Covid-19 over the first half of August, for example, was more than all the fatalities in June or July.
These are grim statistics for the wealthiest country in the world. The horrific toll of 630,000 deaths from the pandemic is the highest globally, at time of writing, and exceeds the number of Americans killed in World War II and all the other major conflicts in US history.
Cases were still rising over the summer in nearly 90 per cent of US jurisdictions, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with outbreaks mainly in areas with low vaccination rates, which leaves them particularly exposed to the transmissibility of the Delta variant. By September the CDC was warning unvaccinated people not to travel around the country.
In the words of President Joe Biden, Covid in America has become “the pandemic of the unvaccinated”. At least three states, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oregon, have deployed the National Guard to help hospitals fight the Covid surge, especially across Southern sates amid the spread of the Delta variant and the reluctance of people to get vaccinated. Currently, just over half of the total population in the US are fully vaccinated.
The US has more than enough vaccines for all, but not everyone is prepared to be vaccinated, due in part to the influence of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement.
The movement had been growing prior to the pandemic. But now a backlash is developing against those refusing to take Covid-19 vaccines. Even former vaccine sceptics like former President Donald Trump are now urging people to get vaccinated so America can overcome the impact of the disease.
The vaccination drive started off well in the US when President Biden took over in January. But as the campaign was targeted by right-wing politicians and the anti-vaxxer movement, it slowed dramatically.
“People are refusing to take the vaccine because they don’t trust (Biden’s) administration, they don’t trust the election results,” Mr Trump said in a statement widely portrayed as politicising the Covid crisis. While ‘anti-vaxxers’ comprise a small percentage of the US population, they became increasingly vocal during the early stages of the pandemic. One of their leading voices is Mr Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of the late US Senator Robert F Kennedy and nephew of the late President John F Kennedy.
He has been a prominent figure in the anti-vaccination campaign for a number of years. His stance has been publicly condemned by the rest of the Kennedy family, who have accused him of helping “to spread dangerous misinformation over social media” and being “complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines”.
Mr Kennedy insists he is not anti-vaccination. However, earlier this year, he was banned from Instagram “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines”, according to a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram. In response, Mr Kennedy stated that “Facebook, the pharmaceutical industry and its captive regulators use the term ‘vaccine misinformation’ as a euphemism for any factual assertion that departs from official pronouncements”.
Mr Kennedy’s ‘Children’s Health Defence’ organisation was criticised earlier this year for releasing a film titled Medical Racism, which purports that there is something “very sinister” surrounding the Covid-19 vaccinations. The film draws on interviews with prominent anti-vaccination advocates and focuses on historical incidents of racism in the medical field, such as the controversial Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972.
The study, which involved 600 black men, sought to observe the progression of syphilis. Participants were promised free medical treatment, but were provided no effective care and the men died, went blind, developed mental health problems or other severe health issues due to their untreated syphilis.
As a result of the Tuskegee experiment, many African-Americans developed a lingering mistrust of public health officials and vaccines. Figures show that the percentage of white people who have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose (50 per cent) was roughly 1.3 times higher than the rate for black people (40 per cent).
Questioning the safety of vaccines and related issues is not the problem. The difficulty emerges when anti-vaccination groups veer into conspiracy theories and misinformation in their efforts to convince people that vaccines are inherently dangerous and pushed by governments to exert control. In some of the most bizarre comments in Congress about Covid-19 control measures (such as mask-wearing), Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia likened such requirements to the Nazi persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
“You know, we can look back in a time and history where people were told to wear a gold star. And they were definitely treated like second-class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”
Congresswoman Taylor Greene also tweeted a tirade against mask-wearing in stores: “Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like Nazi’s [sic] forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.”
The House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said his party “condemned” her remarks and added: “Marjorie is wrong, and her intentional decision to compare the horrors of the Holocaust with wearing masks is appalling.” An investigation by the international Centre for Countering Digital Hate says that the roughly 150 leading anti-vaxx social media accounts gained more than 10 million followers between 2019 and December 2020.
“Our investigation of these accounts shows that the majority are run from the US, but a significant number have connections to other English-speaking countries too. Analysis of transparency data for the 215 Facebook pages in our sample shows that 90 per cent have administrators based in the US.”
The US group Anti-Vax Watch, which monitors social media misinformation, charges that “anti-vaxxers are prolonging the epidemic”. Polls have found that up to 30 per cent of Americans still do not plan to get vaccinated.
“Experts list many reasons for the vaccine slump,” political analyst Mr David Frum wrote in Vanity Fair in July. “But one big reason stands out: Vaccine resistance among conservative, evangelical and rural Americans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty.”
It certainly seemed that way at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas in July, when the audience cheered after being told that President Biden had not met his goal of having 70 per cent of Americans vaccinated by Independence Day on 4 July.
The reaction horrified many. Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden, told CNN: “Everybody starts screaming and clapping. I just don’t get that. It’s horrifying. I mean, they are cheering about someone saying that it’s a good thing for people not to try and save their lives.”
Such attitudes also anger Mr Frum. “Compassion should always be the first reaction to vaccine hesitation. Maybe some vaccinated people have trouble getting time off work to deal with side-effects, maybe they are disorganised, and maybe they are just irrationally anxious. But there’s no getting around the truth that some considerable number of the unvaccinated are also behaving wilfully and spitefully. Yes, they have been deceived and manipulated by garbage TV, toxic Facebook content, and craven or crazy politicians.”
The refusal of many Americans to be vaccinated has imposed financial costs on others. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the hospitalisation cost of treating preventable Covid-19 in unvaccinated patients during June and July was $2.3 billion (€2 billion) – with the costs “borne not only by patients but also by society more broadly”.
The founder and Executive Director of Action on Smoking Health (ASH), Mr John Banzhaf, drew parallels on CNN between exposure to the dangers of second-hand smoke and the risks of contracting Covid-19.
“When it became clear that second-hand smoke threatened the health and very lives of blameless non-smokers, governments and those in charge got tough on smoking in public,” he said.
“They made it much harder, if not impossible, for thoughtless smokers to light up in restaurants, on sidewalks, on public transportation and in other places where non-smokers have to breathe their toxic fumes,” he said, concluding: “Let’s stop coddling the minority, and hold the unvaccinated responsible for the consequences of their own deadly decisions.”
Two US states, Florida and Texas, whose governors are keen Trump supporters, are seeing surging cases that are mainly being attributed to the governors’ refusal to implement measures recommended by the Biden administration.
In Florida, where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis issued a blanket ban on mask mandates imposed by school districts, teenagers and children under 12 have been testing positive for the virus at a higher rate than any other group, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Overall, the state has one of the worst Covid-19 resurgences in the country.
The situation in Texas looks equally dire. Republican Governor Greg Abbott banned mask and vaccination mandates in July. By August, Covid-19 outbreaks had temporarily shut at least four Texas school districts, while cases soared among students as the virus ran rampant throughout the state. Turning tide?
However, now the tide appears to be turning and people in a number of states have begun defying their governors. In several states, school districts are ignoring their governors and implementing mask mandates despite the threat of sanctions and lawsuits. At least five school districts in Florida have done so, while at least eight counties in Texas have done likewise, according to the Texas Tribune.
Governor DeSantis of Florida reacted by threatening that the state board of education could withhold the salaries of public school officials who do not implement his ban on mask mandates.
In response, President Biden said that funds from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by Democrats earlier this year, could be used to “backfill” any salaries withheld by the Florida board of education.
“As I’ve said before, if you aren’t going to fight Covid-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who is trying,” President Biden said. “You know, we’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
An Axios-Ipsos poll found that 69 per cent of American adults support school mask mandates, and 66 per cent oppose laws prohibiting local mask mandates. Even former President Trump has urged people to “take the vaccines” although he was booed for doing so by his supporters at a rally in Alabama on 21 August. “I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines.” He has been backed by the state’s Republican governor.
Alabama, which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, has the lowest vaccination rate in the US, with just over 36 per cent of its population fully inoculated.
Governor Kay Ivey’s message to reporters in July was blunt. She said the “unvaccinated folks” were to blame for the resurgence of the disease. “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down. Almost 100 per cent of the new hospitalisations are with unvaccinated folks. And the deaths are certainly occurring with the unvaccinated folks.
These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain.” The Governor’s comments came just days after a doctor in the state, Dr Brytney Cobia, made an impassioned plea on Facebook for Americans to get vaccinated. She described how she had seen otherwise healthy young people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 infections. “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.
A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honour their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same. “They cry. And they tell me they didn’t know. They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin colour they wouldn’t get as sick. They thought it was ‘just the flu’.
But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back, but they can’t.” ‘Bad advice’ About 40 per cent of Republicans are uncertain about the vaccine or are unwilling to be vaccinated, polling data published by the Morning Consult organisation showed. That is more than double the 16 per cent of Democrats who voiced those concerns. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is fighting back against those in his party opposing vaccines. He has blamed misinformation for the low rates of vaccination in many Republican-dominated states. “There is bad advice out there, you know,” Senator McConnell told Reuters on 28 July. “Apparently you see that all over the place: People practising medicine without a licence, giving bad advice.
And that bad advice should be ignored.”Many Congressional Republicans have refused to say publicly whether they have been vaccinated, with some attacking the vaccines as unnecessary or dangerous. But a number of other Republicans have now joined the Alabama governor in urging people in their states to get vaccinated.”If you’re not vaccinated, you’re part of the problem,” was the message from West Virginia Governor Jim Justice at a press conference in July.
“If all of us were vaccinated, do you not believe that less people would die? If you’re not vaccinated, you’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”It seems, too, that the days of inducements to encourage the unvaccinated may be waning. West Virginia had been touting a vaccine incentive lottery with prizes such as $1 million cash, 25 weekend getaways and two full four-year scholarships.
But now Governor Justice has taken a different approach, telling those choosing not to get the vaccine they were entering a “death lottery”.He told ABC News: “When it really boils right down to it, they’re in a lottery to themselves. We have a lottery, you know, that basically says, ‘If you’re vaccinated, we’re going to give you stuff.’ Well, you’ve got another lottery going on. And it’s the death lottery.”
Former President Trump’s White House Press Secretary Ms Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is now running for governor in Arkansas, has also urged people to get vaccinated. She reportedly sought to make it more palatable by referring to it as the “Trump vaccine” and praising his Warp Speed initiative, which undoubtedly helped inject urgency into the search for a vaccine. She noted that 98 per cent of those hospitalised in Arkansas and 99 per cent of those who had died from Covid were unvaccinated. “Many of our hospitals are now dangerously close to maximum capacity due to rising Covid cases, and the heroic doctors and nurses who have stood on the frontlines of the pandemic need the ability to treat patients with other serious illnesses and emergencies as well,”
Ms Sanders wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper. “I believe the Trump vaccine will help keep our state open for business and our economy growing.” Over 70 doctors from south Florida hospitals staged a symbolic walkout at the end of August to highlight a surge in unvaccinated Covid-19 patients. Meanwhile, a right-wing TV and radio host in Florida, Mr Dick Farrel, who had urged listeners not to get vaccinated, died on 8 August after contracting the virus.
Mr Farrel, who once described Dr Fauci as a “power-tripping, lying freak”, had called the vaccines “bogus”.
He is reported to have changed his views on vaccination after becoming ill. President Biden announced on 29 July that all federal employees must be vaccinated against Covid-19. As the tide continues to turn against the vaccine hesitant, the uptake on vaccines is growing.
According to White House Covid-19 Data Director Mr Cyrus Shahpar, the US administered more than one million vaccinations for the third day in a row on 19 August, the first time it has done so in more than two months. The Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on 23 August, more than eight months after it an emergency use authorisation, is also boosting vaccine uptake. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about three-in-10 unvaccinated are now more likely to get vaccinated.
If this positive trend continues, Dr Fauci says he is optimistic that America could control the pandemic by the spring of 2022. The world will be hoping he is correct.