An alarming one in three Americans said they won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new AP-NORC poll. And since 70–80% of Americans must get the vaccine to establish herd immunity, our effort to suppress the virus by vaccine may already be doomed.
Most people cite safety and effectiveness of the vaccine as the roots of their skepticism. They also cite distrust of the government and the speed with which these vaccines were created. And then there are the conspiracy theorists.
We won’t dive into each of these concerns, because plenty of websites already do that. Instead, I want to explore how the roots of this skepticism is similar to another, equally dangerous trend: climate denial.
The sources of distrust are often unwieldy, multifaceted, and hard to pin down. Humans are complicated and so are the problems they face. But there are still several common denominators.
For example, in both the climate crisis and our current health crisis, much of the distrust is rooted in misinformation, divorced from scientific facts and consensus.
An overwhelming majority of scientists believe in human-caused climate change, and a similar majority believe that vaccines are safe. Yet, in both cases, a significant number of people are on the fence — over a third of Americans still do not attribute climate change to humans.
This disconnect between science and the public is a product of several factors, but it’s mostly related to how we consume media.
Social media platforms like Facebook have allowed misinformation to rage through their networks like a California wildfire. Earlier this month, Facebook said it would crack down on anti-vaccination misinformation, but many experts worry that it’s too late. Much like the tide of climate change misinformation, which Facebook also failed to stem, the roots of skepticism have already taken hold of millions of Americans.
The same systems that allow misinformation to flourish also give huge platforms to a few individuals. Donald Trump used Twitter to minimize the threats of climate change and COVID-19. Online salesman Joseph Mercola has made millions selling natural healthcare products, labeled as alternatives to vaccines, that fly in the face of general scientific consensus.
Television and radio are not off the hook here either. For 30 years, the late radio host Rush Limbaugh spoke directly to 15 million listeners, leaving behind a legacy of climate denial and misinformation. Other conservative media giants, notably those who have shows on Fox News, have fueled similar climate denial for years, which has seeped into the Republican Party.
The digression to anti-vaccination, therefore, seemed inevitable. Recently, Sean Hannity used his Fox News show to cast doubt about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. It’s no wonder then that Republicans are also the group that is least likely to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
The bad news is that much of climate denial has already screwed the Planet, sowing enough doubt to impede progress and lock the Earth into inevitable warming. But it’s not too late to communicate the safety and necessity of vaccines. As the climate crisis has shown, it’s better to be proactive than reactive.
So far, the Biden administration has largely failed to convince people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. To change that, the Biden Administration, with the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative, recently launched a new action alliance, an effort that includes an unheard of $50 million public education campaign.
The president can also use his platform to defend science, rather than attack it, by delivering simple, clear calls-to-action, perhaps from the Oval Office, or better yet, from a diverse group of celebrities, executives, and influencers, as The New York Times suggests.
We’ve failed to curb the climate crisis, largely because of increasing misinformation and skepticism in the face of established science. Should we fail to reach herd immunity because of that same distrust, we’re setting ourselves up for a dangerous future.