Vaccines aren’t easy to come by in Gaza, from where I’ve just returned. There are no vaccines in Chad. It is the same situation in Burundi, Eritrea and Burkino Faso – those countries are called “vaccine deserts”.
In Iran, where Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing, the supreme leader had to resort to a homegrown vaccine. In Syria, Yemen and Iraq there is a long wait and the vast majority people have not yet had the jab. In Lebanon, only 17 per cent of the country has been vaccinated.
Some of these examples – such as Lebanon and Iraq – are down to vaccine hesitation. “There’s not enough research”; or “it’s come out too fast”; or “I don’t trust Western pharmaceuticals”.
The amount of vaccination misinformation coming from social media has persuaded some people that vaccines are dangerous. But in my country, the US, it has also become a political issue, a deep partisan divide over the willingness to vaccinate. The Republican party has turned a vaccine that could save your life into a matter of civil liberty, like their obsession with gun control and the right to carry arms.
This week, US President Joe Biden sets out on a campaign to get more people vaccinated. The White House recently announced that 70 per cent of Americans had taken the jab. But another poll this week from Monmouth University in New Jersey said that 31 per cent of Republicans have adamantly expressed that they will never get the vaccine.
It is not that they are waiting for more information or better incentives or more research. For many, it is a matter of principle – like being told to wear masks indoors. They simply will not do it. They will never take an injection that could save their lives and others around them. What is behind this logic? Possibly the massive disinformation, courtesy the crowd that says "Fauci Lied, People Died" on YouTube and Twitter. Or the people who say it will cause fertility problems. Some others believe the conspiracy theories that baselessly drag in Bill Gates or George Soros. Others still say the messaging from the government was not clear enough – roughly 6 out of 10 Americans say their health agencies have been inconsistent with the messaging.
But still, only 51 per cent of Republicans have got even one dose. These are the same people who turned out in hoards to champion Donald Trump at his rallies in the last dying days of his presidency. They wore Maga (Make America Great Again) caps but no masks. The fact that you might contaminate the person next to you – or kill your grandmother by spreading the infection – is not nearly as important as not letting governments tell you what to do.
I have had numerous conversations with privileged people – some, oddly, in the health care profession – who refuse to be vaccinated, and I always walk away frustrated. I want to ask them: do you know what people in parts of Africa would do for the vaccine?
In the African-American community, there is also reluctance that comes down to a traumatic and painful history. One young woman, fresh from an Ivy League university, told me that experiments were done on her people in the past using vaccines and she was sceptical. She was referring to the infamous Tuskegee study in Alabama in the 1930s in which Black men were left to suffer from syphilis. The men were human subjects in a terrible and cruel study designed to withhold medical treatment.
Some reluctance might be due to the fact that it was harder to register and get vaccinated, especially in vulnerable communities. But by spring, that had changed. Starting out with some hiccups, my hometown New York City, then did a tremendous job of making both testing and vaccine distribution accessible through an app. In the past few months, getting a vaccine has been as easy as passing by a pharmacy for 10 minutes.
Every time I have one of these anti-vaccine conversations, I want to point out how selfish it is not to get vaccinated. If you don’t care enough about yourself, what about your family and your community? To reach herd immunity we need to have enough people vaccinated to prevent the spread of now the Delta variant. We need mass antibodies to fight back. We can’t do this if irresponsible politicians are using vaccines as a partisan issue.
There is also the issue of privilege. I am running a UN-sponsored project on transitional justice, three years in the making, with participants from Syria, Yemen and Iraq. We are due to meet in the Gulf in October, in a country that requires either for travellers to be vaccinated to enter or a period of quarantine. Yet many of the students can’t get vaccines. They live far from cities or they don’t have the means and are trying desperately to get them. When I hear that someone in the US, who can easily get the jab in 10 minutes, refuses to co-operate, I think of how spoilt a society we are.
But there is some hope. Some high-profile Republicans and some conservative media personalities are shifting their stance on vaccination. Among these are Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; and Congressman Steve Scalise from Louisiana, which has the highest number of cases in the world – and only 36 per cent of the residents are vaccinated. They have all got the jab. Senate minority leader Mitch Mc Connell is going to run radio ads in his home state of Kentucky urging people to get vaccinated.
Even Mr Trump himself, who once said the “China virus” would go away, whoosh, as if by magic, got vaccinated. And Alex Azar, Mr Trump’s former Secretary of Health, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging all Americans to get vaccinated. “The coronavirus is nonpartisan,” he wrote. “It makes no judgment about one’s political leanings. The vaccines that were developed to fight this virus have no political bias, either.”
The coronavirus is not about Red or Blue states. It’s about living or dying. It’s about saving the lives of those around you. Perhaps vaccine hesitancy should have been addressed earlier. Perhaps messaging could have been better. But we are now at a crucial stage where everyone needs to be vaccinated, and the best public relations for the vaccine has to be word of mouth: people urging each other to get the vaccine.
It’s about taking simple steps to end a pandemic that has crippled us.