A health care worker with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

A health care worker with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

The story of Phil Valentine, a conservative radio host in Tennessee who once urged listeners not to get the COVID-19 vaccine but did a dramatic turnaround after contracting the disease and ending up in the hospital fighting for his life, has been making the rounds of the media. But many conservative social media users have suggested that coverage of this story has had an element of unseemly gloating and finger-pointing.

That brings us to a dicey question: What is the best way to reach unvaccinated Americans, and can social shaming be a legitimate part of that effort?

So far, only half of the United States population is fully vaccinated. While no vaccine is 100% effective, infections in the vaccinated are usually mild, and hospitalizations and deaths are now almost exclusively among the unvaccinated.

Should it be their choice to take a chance on COVID-19 rather than the vaccine? Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it works in a pandemic. We’re not even close to the 70% vaccination rate some experts estimate is needed for "herd immunity." The more new infections, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate (as with the current delta variant). The real danger is that, eventually, a variant will appear against which current vaccines are ineffective or much less effective. That will be a massive setback — and it will obviously affect the vaccinated.

Under the circumstances, some social shaming doesn’t seem particularly onerous. The question is whether it works, especially in an age when vaccination has become a political issue in a polarized climate.

In June, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 86% of Democrats but only 52% of Republicans had gotten at least one shot. In other polls, white evangelicals are the most likely to say they don’t plan to get vaccinated.

It’s true that vaccine hesitancy is not strictly a partisan issue: It is relatively high in the Black and Hispanic communities, both strongly Democratic. But it’s only on the right that one finds pervasive messaging that encourages or panders to vaccine avoidance — from misinformation about the vaccine’s risks to "your body, your choice" talk.

This could be seen as paradoxical, since the Trump administration spearheaded the effort to develop the vaccine and can rightly claim credit for it. But Donald Trump’s instinct (shared by many of his supporters) was to downplay the pandemic and suggest that Democrats were overhyping it to sabotage his presidency. This attitude, as well as populist mistrust of "elites" and experts, likely accounts for Republican vaccine hesitancy today.

And this is why shaming is a singularly ineffective remedy — particularly for a group that idolizes a man whose appeal lies partly in his shamelessness, repackaged as defiance of "liberal" and "elite" moral and social standards.

When left-of-center media outlets and social media users mock vaccine avoiders, it comes across as culture warfare — and as ghoulish gloating, if the targets of this mockery are sick or even dead — more than public health messaging.

We still have many avenues for improving vaccination rates, including better information and resources for those whose hesitancy is not ideological. As for vaccine-avoidant conservatives, it’s likely that the best way to reach them is to enlist other conservatives — including those converted by experience, like Valentine. Shaming, as in many other cases, is far more satisfying to the shamers than persuasive to the shamed.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.

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