Opinion

Opinion: Vaccine hesitancy is more complicated than just party affiliation

No doubt, what is happening to sections of our state is absolutely heartbreaking.

Currently, the Delta variant of COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in the lower portions of Missouri, steadily creeping up its midsection and beginning to move outward towards the suburban ‘coasts’ of Kansas City and St. Louis.

While outspoken hospital administrators have been and are currently sounding battle calls and begging for help, health practitioners are struggling to keep up with the work it takes to treat, contain and keep a growing number of COVID-19 patients alive.

Indeed, Missouri is in the midst of a foggy public health crisis as vaccination rates in many counties fall far behind the national average.  By my calculations, approximately 40 percent of Missouri’s counties have only 25 percent or less of their population fully vaccinated. To be more specific, 24 percent of Missouri’s counties have 30 percent or less of those eighteen and over fully vaccinated.

I live in a micropolitan enclave surrounded by a very large rural area where a little under 22 percent of the total population are fully vaccinated. Thirty-four percent of those over the age of eighteen are fully vaccinated. However, a casual stroll through my local Walmart would not tell a story of caution, as it is just as crowded as it normally is and the number of masks that are worn could be counted on one hand.

As all phases and tiers of the Missouri “Stronger Together” vaccination roll out plan have come and gone, even with prior disparities in accessibility, vaccines are now readily available across the state. Despite the preponderance of evidence that they work, reluctance abounds and masks are off which has contributed to a nightmarishly steady rise in cases.

Explainers as to why some are not getting vaccinated have pointed their finger at party affiliation. To be sure, there is a national vaccination gap between Republicans and Democrats. Troubling is the circulation of conspiracy theories and misinformation that do fuel some of the personal decisions that have had detrimental and deadly effects on those who buy into them and their web of contacts. A cursory look at comments on articles and announcements about the rising cases in Missouri paints a politically polarizing picture of the current situation.

Some blame “Republicanism” on low vaccination rates. The more derisive comments blame Republicans and come to the conclusion that those not vaccinated and suffering from deadly COVID-19 symptoms should not be treated. This is not a shock given the growing movement towards dehumanizing the political opposition whatever side of the aisle one is on.

Sure, there is a strong argument that party identification and vaccinations rates are related. It is especially apparent given some of the political messaging from some Republican leaders.

However, if we pick apart these demographics, we see that a substantial proportion of Black Americans also report hesitancy. In fact, a mid-June 2021 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that while 14 percent of those who have yet to receive a dose, 12 percent of Democrats responded that despite the availability of it they will remain holdouts. They either want to wait and see, get it if only required or would definitely not get it.

Meanwhile, responses by Black Americans illustrate a divergence from the normal (Democrat) partisan affiliation and associated preferences — 32 percent responded that they will wait and see, get it if only required or would definitely not get it.  Forty-five percent of Republicans responded affirmatively along those same measures as well as 46 percent of those under the age of 65 who were uninsured.

That a good proportion of Black Americans report reluctance to get the vaccine should be no surprise given the appalling history of exploitation and abuse endured through medical experimentation.  Hesitancy among people of color has also been found to be rooted in worry about taking time off from work to recover from side effects, lack of information, vaccine effectiveness, and disinterest due to not being directly affected by the virus.

It should be no surprise, too, that vaccination rates in rural Missourians are incredibly low — not just by virtue of being Republican strongholds, but also due to the high rates of poverty and relative isolation. Alternatively, we may want to ask what explains the percentage of Missouri Republicans that are vaccinated.

Too, one could make the argument that it is very “Missouri” as hesitancy towards government action fits the political cultures that are associated with the region. Missouri’s individualistic political culture exhibits itself through staunch support of limited government.

While 23 percent of Missourians stated that they are uncertain, undecided or definitely would not get the vaccine, 34 percent of them cited that it was because they “don’t trust the government.” Twenty-three percent of unvaccinated Kansans in that survey chose the same reason.

Also, those in politics are supposed self-interested ladder climbers — which does not lend well to trusting politico’s and may contribute to an affinity toward political outsiders. Couple that with a traditionalistic political culture that seeks to maintain the existing social and economic order, and among other things, perhaps we can see why rural Missourians consistently vote red.

It should be noted, though, that in Missouri, this cultural element has existed even when seats for statewide offices were blue.

During the pandemic messaging about limited government has been very clear. Missouri’s individualistic political culture is exemplified through fierce resistance in implementing a statewide mask mandate. Gov. Mike Parson stated that while he was not anti-mask, he was anti-mandate.

Further, pushback from and the characterization of promoting the vaccine door-to-door was inevitable as this idea can be seen as objectionable to those immersed in a political culture that exalts limited government. All told, cultural and situational sensitivity should be considered when linking vote shares to who is deserving of care. Finger wagging, deriding and dehumanizing those who affiliate with the other party risks placing a wedge in an already divisive environment — regardless of party affiliation.

Spillover of this during a public health crisis, which should not have been politicized in the first place, undermines necessitated discourse for a marketplace of ideas as to how communities can encourage safe choices during a global pandemic.

Unfortunately, Americans have become more and more polarized. To add to the current worries over democratic norms and values, the acceptance of political violence among both Democrats and Republicans is alarming. Equally alarming is bearing witness to emotional and psychological abuse occurring under the guise of political discourse by both sides of the aisle.

Humiliation, belittlement and blaming the victim give no credence to the cause. It also does not stop or slow the spread of a pandemic. Losing sight of common ground can be detrimental. Pulling the rug from the middle ground lends no room for resolution if an ear is not left to hear due to political biases. Sure, Republicans are among the least vaccinated group — and in Missouri we have a lot of them.

In Missouri, we are in an incredibly dire situation. And in Missouri, there is also more context to vaccination hesitation than just party affiliation.

This commentary by Robynn Kuhlmann is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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