The Delta variant’s message to anti-vaxxers: It’s your funeral

A protester.

A protester. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

The Delta variant is here. It’s now responsible for the majority of COVID-19 infections in the United States and is driving a rapid rise in cases, not only in red states like Arkansas but in true blue New York City.

But while the Delta variant is much more contagious than either the original strain or the Alpha variant that first appeared in Britain, and has shown greater ability to infect vaccinated individuals, all the vaccines approved for use in the United States have so far proven highly effective in preventing severe disease and death.

So it’s understandably maddening that much of the American right has decided this is the time to double down on making opposition to vaccination a central front in our endless culture war.

It’s maddening — but it is essential not to take the bait. The fact that vaccines have become a focal point at all should be the final proof that the culture war is a self-sustaining process largely untethered from substantive grievances. Republicans believe that on balance fighting helps them politically, and I suspect they are right. But it’s not a war that either side can actually win by fighting, even though individual politicians and media stars can advance their own particular fortunes. For the country as a whole, the only way to win is not to play.

With respect to the vaccination campaign, then, that means ignoring the anti-vaccination campaigns, and focusing on actions that don’t depend on convincing the skeptical.

One of the most important things the federal government could do to promote more uptake of the vaccines is for the FDA to grant them full approval. Not because this will convince the hard-core hesitant — it’s just as plausible that they will see approval as evidence that political interference has rushed the process — but because it will change the legal landscape for mandatory vaccination. In particular, it would allow the military to order vaccination of all those serving in uniform, as they do with a host of other vaccines.

Mandating vaccination for all employees who work in health-care settings like hospitals or nursing homes is also an obvious move with potentially substantial public health benefits given the shockingly low uptake of vaccines in that sector and the need to protect vulnerable patients — including the immunosuppressed who cannot benefit adequately from vaccines. Such mandates could be imposed even without FDA approval, as demonstrated by the failure of a suit against Houston Methodist Hospital by staff who did not to comply with the hospital’s mandate. Resistance evaporated and compliance soared right after the suit failed.

Businesses that are vulnerable to disruption due to COVID outbreaks also have reason to mandate vaccination, and the government makes it clear that they are free to do so. Broadway shows are already mandating universal vaccination of cast and crew; movie sets can be expected to follow. From auto assembly lines to public schools to meatpacking plants, managers should see the risk a COVID outbreak would pose to their ability to operate effectively, and act accordingly — particularly if insurers start charging higher rates or declining to provide certain kinds of coverage to operations that do not have a mandate in place.

None of this requires hectoring, or even persuasion — which is good, because those strategies are proving ineffective. On that score, I think the powers that be should take a good look in the mirror and recognize that their ability to persuade is distinctly limited. While they deserve some of the blame for their impotence — as right-wing critics never tire of litanizing — distrust of authority is also part of human nature, and especially American nature. That’s something we have to live with, not rail against.

So I think it behooves those same authorities to start taking a different tack in their public statements, less imploring and more matter-of-fact. The vaccines are safe, and are life-saving, and so in areas where the government has direct authority and a mission that depends on health, they are going to mandate vaccination. Furthermore, where there remain barriers to access, they’re going to remove or go around them, so that nobody gets sick for lack of a vaccine they were willing to take. I think the Biden administration proposal to go door to door offering vaccines for free to anyone who wants them is a great idea, and long overdue.

But if particular states and localities want to reject that help, they should be free to do so — and Biden should say it. The very existence of the vaccines in sufficient quantities to give everyone a shot who wants one changes the moral calculus, and makes it less and less reasonable to claim that too many innocents are at risk to allow other people the freedom to be foolish.

So if Tennessee wants to abandon vaccination outreach to minors for fear that some parents will be upset, that’s their prerogative — or it’s a problem for the citizens of Tennessee to solve by replacing their government. That’s what it means to be a democracy. Public health is a matter of public responsibility, but particular communities and certainly private citizens remain free to take their lives in their own hands. Indeed, that freedom not to get vaccinated is perfectly parallel to the business-owner’s freedom to mandate its employees get vaccinated: Each is making the decision that reflects their own assessment of their interests and values.

We don’t have to respect the decisions others make, but we have to respect their right to make them. That’s why when someone does something we think is egregiously stupid, we say: It’s your funeral.

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