In the last mile of our battle against COVID, the enemy is us

Time may have come for more aggressive tactics on vaccinations

Roger Towberman, the senior most enlisted in the US Space Force, displays the service insignia. (Photo by Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images)
Roger Towberman, the senior most enlisted in the US Space Force, displays the service insignia. (Photo by Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images)
Posted July 13, 2021 at 6:00am

In a scene from the movie “The Matrix,” revered by conspiracy theorists, the hero is offered a choice between the blue pill of comforting illusions and the red pill that offers nothing more than the truth.  

The correct answer, of course, is the red pill that reveals the hidden forces that control the world. 

These days, Americans are being offered an even more fateful binary choice. 

Do you maintain the comforting illusion that COVID-19 is an invention of the hysterical news media and afflicts only older people with unhealthy habits? Or do you accept the truth of science and get vaccinated against what is fast becoming the worst pandemic in American history?

The correct answer should be equally obvious.

The rapid development of stunningly effective American vaccines against all variants of the coronavirus is the most glorious scientific breakthrough of this century. 

Compared to what has been achieved by Pfizer and Moderna, the braggadocio space race among bored billionaires is akin to a 9-year-old pretending to circle the globe with a balsa wood airplane. 

But, alarmingly, the government’s vaccination drive has stalled. Only 67 percent of adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and only 59 percent are fully vaccinated. 

For the most part, Republicans are the holdouts. A June analysis by the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor found that 23 percent of all Republicans would not — under any circumstances — get inoculated, and another 8 percent would do it only if the injections were mandatory.  

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, the crowd cheered enthusiastically at the news that the Biden administration had failed to hit its target of 70-percent vaccination by Independence Day. 

In this right-wing circus environment, the spread of the Black Plague would probably have inspired a standing ovation. 

It is difficult to grasp the logic of sticking it to the Democrats by risking death or long-haul symptoms from a terrible virus. 

The real-world consequences of this denial of science are visible in places like Springfield, the third-largest city in Missouri. As the Kansas City Star reported, “The [Delta] variant is rampaging through the unvaccinated, spurring rising cases and threatening to overwhelm Springfield hospitals.”

This is Donald Trump country. The former president carried the Springfield area with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2020. Joplin, another epicenter of the COVID comeback, is partly in a county that went for Trump by a better than 2-to-1 margin.

These chilling examples of anti-vax sentiments are taking place at a time when most of the world is pleading for more vaccines — vaccines that America boasts in abundance.

The nation will soon be facing a full-blown COVID crisis that cannot be blamed on scientific failures or Chinese secrecy about potential lab leaks. This is the ultimate expression of Pogo’s long-ago dictum from the comic strips: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Up to now, the Biden administration has tried to use the gentle arts of persuasion to spur vaccination. But it is time for the White House to recognize that more aggressive tactics are needed to permanently tame the pandemic.

For starters, the FDA should move more aggressively to grant permanent authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which up to now have been authorized under “emergency” provisions. Yes, proper science takes time. But the emergency label is one of the factors that is commonly cited by those who are resisting the jabs.  

The time has also come for the administration to publicly support vaccine mandates in the workplace, at sporting events and in schools and colleges. Such vaccination requirements are legal as long as those with relevant disabilities and religious objections are exempt. 

A recent poll, jointly sponsored by Politico and Harvard, found that by 53 percent to 46 percent Americans favor businesses requiring their employees to be vaccinated before they can return to work. 

If major employers from Walmart to IBM supported vaccine mandates, it would make a significant contribution to public health. Coercion from the private sector is apt to be more easily accepted by vaccine holdouts than governmental pressure. 

Mitch McConnell, the master of Senate obstruction, deserves credit for being the most prominent Republican to unequivocally urge vaccination. In contrast, Trump, while vaccinated, has treated his own status as a shameful secret. 

Why not use McConnell and his reasonable Senate GOP colleagues as emissaries for public health?

A sense of the Senate resolution with McConnell as a co-sponsor urging vaccination might inspire vaccine-resistant Republicans. If McConnell were to endorse such a symbolic statement, it might get as many as 70 Senate votes. 

At a moment when trust is in short supply in Congress, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats should do all they can to assure McConnell that the only goal of such a resolution is public health — and that it is not a trap to somehow ensnare Republicans for 2022. 

The final element is that the Biden administration needs to do far more to both distribute vaccines around the world and to help provide the public health infrastructure to administer the shots.  

With the unpopularity of foreign aid, there is always the political risk that swing voters might regard such a major effort as the latest example of Uncle Sucker replacing Uncle Sam. But, unless the pandemic is doused around the globe, Americans will always be at risk from new variants that might overwhelm existing vaccines.  

America is so close to a permanent return to normal. It would be tragic if ignorance, stubbornness and conspiratorial thinking grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.