Spreading vaccine misinformation is dangerous and wrong

People can disagree about vaccine mandates, but the science on vaccines is clear: They’re safe and effective.

In the late 19th century, people protested against mandatory smallpox vaccines. Despite them, today we live in a world without smallpox.

COVID-19 policy is not a value-neutral, objective matter of science. The people of a nation as diverse as ours will have differing—and even conflicting—values, interests, and opinions. We can disagree and debate what rules, policies, and priorities are appropriate.

People can disagree about vaccine mandates, for example. However, when it comes to the vaccines themselves, the available evidence is quite clear: They’re safe and effective. A recent study found that unvaccinated Americans were 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19 compared to those who were vaccinated. In breakthrough cases, vaccines were also largely effective in preventing hospitalization.

Furthermore, choosing not to take them puts oneself and others at risk. When one person’s commitment to baseless or demonstrably false beliefs results in their own death, it’s a tragedy. When it results in the deaths of others, it’s an injustice.

Vaccines are not simply a matter of personal freedom. I believe the expression “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins” applies here. Each person’s decision to get vaccinated or not affects others around them.

For one thing, it spreads the virus and leads to new variants. For another, unvaccinated people who contract COVID-19 can strain hospital resources so much that people with other types of health problems cannot get care. That’s why emergency rooms across the country are begging people to get vaccinated.

Spreading opposition to the vaccine that is grounded in misinformation is ethically problematic. Misinformation kills—not only the innocent, but sometimes the purveyors of misinformation themselves.

Tragically, at least five vocally anti-vax conservative talk show hosts have died from COVID-19: Phil Valentine, Bob Enyart, Marc Bernier, Jimmy DeYoung, and Dick Farrel. In some cases, they made deathbed appeals to listeners to get vaccinated. They left behind grieving families.

But other voices are more cynical. As the nation tries to get back to work and to school, Fox News personalities are throwing another wrench in the gears by advocating opposition to asking Americans to report their vaccination status.

Meanwhile, their own employer, Fox, has asked its employees to report their vaccine statuses. Off camera, Vanity Fair reports that Fox hosts scrupulously follow strict COVID-19 safety protocols.

Is the channel gambling that spreading misinformation will improve ratings by gluing eyeballs to the screen more than it will lower ratings by killing viewers?

Anti-vaccination protests, the journal Nature notes, have “always been a proxy for wider fears about social control.” Opposition to vaccines is related to other concerns that have nothing to do with whether the vaccines are safe and effective.

To the extent that opposition to vaccines is about political loyalties, conservatives have another path available to them: Consider the vaccine a Trump victory. That’s what Trump himself does. “The vaccines do work,” Trump said recently. “And they are effective… I think I saved millions and millions of lives around the world.”

Trump was livid when he found out the vaccine would not be available to Americans before the 2020 election. His administration was in charge during most of the vaccine’s development, and he wanted credit. Once he was able to receive the vaccine himself, he did.

Why will Trump’s followers take his medical advice when it dangerously lacks evidence—one man died from taking a fish tank cleaner for COVID-19 following Trump’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine—but not when it’s about the vaccine?

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson writes about food, agriculture, the environment, health, tolerance, and well-being. Currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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