OPINION | ART HOBSON: The unvaccinated blew it for everyone

What’s behind such destructive behavior?

We were doing so well. After covid rose to grotesque levels last winter, medical science developed vaccines that rescued us. Arkansas, for example, experienced a nine-month rise, peaking in January at 3,000 new cases per day and 30 deaths per day. This represents immense human suffering; for comparison, it's 20 times Arkansas' vehicular death rate. Then, during two months, Arkansas new cases dropped to "merely" 200-300 per day because many people chose vaccination. Near-normalcy returned. Springtime partiers ripped off their masks, exclaiming "it's all over."

However, covid is stubborn and too many people are foolish. Arkansas' new daily cases remained at 200-300 during March, April and May and only 34% of Arkansans were vaccinated by the end of June. This was our best window of opportunity to reduce the virus to manageable levels.

Unvaccinated Americans blew it for all of us when covid came roaring back on the strength of the new variant. Arkansas' daily cases accelerated during just a single month to over 2,000. Low vaccination rates and the variant's high transmissibility were responsible. We had plenty of vaccine. With a uniform 70-80% vaccination rate, the variant probably could have been held to manageable proportions.

So again, we face disaster. Again, covid fills the news. Again, Arkansas cases are over 2,000 per day and rising. Again, Arkansas deaths are over 20 per day -- deaths even more tragic than those during the earlier peak because the victims are younger.

Although some folks have valid medical reasons for avoiding vaccination, the ideologically convinced anti-vaxxers are, to put it mildly, endangering all of us. I cannot fathom their fierce resistance, but I think we all need to try to understand it. After all, every state requires school children to be vaccinated against several diseases. Government requires drivers to have a driver's license, to be sober and to stop at red lights. What's wrong with requiring covid vaccinations? Although I don't know the answer, I think it's time for thoughtful people to ask such questions. What's the hang-up about requiring people who are in contact with others to be vaccinated against a highly transmissible deadly disease?

When faced with a mystery of such consequence, one should search for clues. Who are these anti-vaxxers? According to a June 2021 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 14% of all Americans, 2% of Democrats, 16% of independents, and 23% of Republicans say they will "definitely not" get a vaccination. So Republicans are far more likely, and Democrats far less likely, than the average American to be anti-vaxxers. The other groups who are far more likely to answer "definitely not" are white Evangelical Christians (22%) and rural residents (24%).

So Republicans, white Evangelicals and rural people are far more likely than the average American to be anti-vaxxers. It's very important not to stigmatize people by over-generalization. This polling conclusion does not say that any of these categories are anti-vaxxers. Indeed, the poll shows that most Americans in every category are likely to be pro-vaccination. What the poll does imply is that most anti-vaxxers fall into these categories.

Given these conclusions, one might predict strong correlations between anti-vaccination beliefs and support for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. In fact, a study of state-by-state vaccination rates shows a clear separation between two groups of states. Of the 30 states with vaccination rates below 65%, 26 voted for Trump. Of the 20 states with vaccination rates above 65%, every state voted for Biden.

The entire world has a covid problem, but our U.S. problem is significantly different from the world's problem. For most of the world, the problem is insufficient vaccine availability. America has plenty of vaccine but too many people who reject vaccinations. I should note that some European nations also have an anti-vaxxer problem.

This rejection is not only irrational, it indicates harmful dysfunction. Over 95% of those who are suffering and dying are unvaccinated, yet vaccination has been proven to safely and almost certainly prevent serious disease and death. A common term for individuals who irrationally and needlessly engage in behavior leading to their own suffering and death is "mentally ill." A common term for families and other groups who engage in activities leading to suffering and alienation is "dysfunctional." A large, influential minority of Americans, namely the anti-vaxxers, is willingly avoiding the solution to a problem that has infected 36 million Americans and killed over 600,000. It seems to me that sociologists and psychologists should seriously study the anti-vax syndrome.