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The pandemic has done what the anti-vax movement couldn’t: powerful skepticism about vaccine rules

Until about two years ago.

In retrospect, we should have anticipated how the country would respond to the wide availability of an effective vaccine to reduce infection and largely prevent worst-case health scenarios. The government’s initial response, which focused on masking and limits on person-to-person interactions, was quickly undermined by President Donald Trump’s drive to quickly return the country to normal economic activity, his eye on his candidacy for re-election in 2020.

But it was also easier for Trump, a fundamentally anti-establishment politician, to cast doubt on the experts than to elevate them. So millions of Americans, especially Republicans, have developed skepticism about the official recommendations that have continued in the large-scale vaccination effort that began in late 2020.

Over the past year, the pool of unvaccinated Americans has increasingly consisted of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Republicans are less likely to receive a vaccine dose and are less likely to say they will receive a booster dose even if they are already vaccinated. Often, this hesitation has been framed as being in opposition to perceived mandates – orders from the establishment that they get a dose. The fact that relatively few Americans are subject to an actual mandate has little effect on this perception, a perception that even Trump – ever eager to play grassroots – has amplified.

The challenge of all this is demonstrated in a poll published this week by YouGov, conducted on behalf of The Economist. When asked if schools should be allowed to mandate student vaccines — all vaccines, that is, not just coronavirus ones — a plurality of Americans said no. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans held that position, even more than the percentage of those who weren’t fully vaccinated.

What’s particularly remarkable about this is how it intersects with one of the frequent arguments in favor of efforts to encourage vaccination. Often, those who oppose rules mandating a vaccine or frequent testing have been reminded that vaccination requirements are common in other settings. The actual coronavirus vaccine mandate that applied to the military, for example, rubbed shoulders with a number of other vaccines required for recruits, ones that were likely barely noticed by those seeking to enlist. When states implemented covid-19 mandates for schools, it was noted that schools mandated vaccines long before enrollment.

What this poll seems to show is that America has not become broadly supportive of vaccine mandates, acknowledging where they might already apply, but instead has become skeptical of previous mandates where they exist. Admittedly, we don’t have data on how this has changed over time; it may be that having been informed of the existence of warrants ten years ago would have been met with the same skepticism. But given that Republicans are so much less supportive of the idea, it reinforces that it straddles the politics and understanding of the moment.

This poll result attracted considerable attention when it was shared by G. Elliott Morris of The Economist on Twitter. But, as it turns out, that wasn’t the end of the search. Morris on Thursday share a follow-up survey conducted by YouGov.

He made two important changes. First, he replaced the word “mandate” with “required of”, eliminating some of the associations that probably accompany the old term now. Second, it differentiated between different vaccines. Views on requiring the MMR (prevention of measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine were separated from views on the coronavirus vaccine or a generic “infectious disease” vaccine.

The result ? Most Americans remain supportive of MMR vaccine requirements and even those targeting “infectious diseases.” Except, it seems, the contagious one that’s still killing thousands a day right now.

Here again you can see the partisan divide – but also the lingering partisan difference.

Republicans are broadly supportive of the longstanding MMR requirement. Identifying it specifically and not making it a mandate probably contributed to the difference compared to the results of the first survey. But the politics of the coronavirus vaccine is also evident: Only a quarter of Republicans support requiring these vaccines when available.

This certainly stems in part from the reduced likelihood of negative effects of the coronavirus on young people. The virus, so far, has been much less deadly for young people than for older people. But, then, the chances of dying from measles, mumps or rubella are also low. Part of the intent of the requirement is to reduce the likelihood of wide spread by increasing community immunity.

That, of course, is at the heart of this question. What the coronavirus pandemic has done is heighten the importance of the question of how much Americans owe each other. This has long been an undercurrent in our politics, but being directly asked to take action to keep everyone safe has made this tension evident.

For years, vaccine opponents have sought to untie warrants out of misguided concern for vaccine safety. It turns out that all they needed to gain traction was a deadly international pandemic in which vaccines could make a real difference – getting people in positions of authority to do what they could to ensure as much vaccination as possible.

Making government advocacy explicit appears to have reduced support for government advocacy.


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