How to squander a medical miracle

The U.S. Covid response is unusually polarized

The rapid development and rollout of the Covid vaccine in the United States was nothing short of miraculous. For the first half of 2021, vaccination rates in the United States were higher than in just about any other wealthy nation in the world — a fact which informed a lot of press coverage of the pandemic at the time.

But things have changed.

As we head into the fall, the U.S. is now in the bottom tier of rich countries when it comes to vaccination, according to official figures compiled by Our World in Data.

As the data show, the U.S. had a massive head start on our peer countries in the first half of the year. (Note that for comparators I used the same 16 countries as a recent National Academies report on American health outcomes in international perspective.) This disparity was compounded, in part, by the botched rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine across Europe.

As recently as June the U.S. still led the wealthy world in shots, but our pace of vaccination was already starting to slow down. In three short months we’ve gone from the top of the pack to near-bottom, ahead only of Switzerland, Japan and Australia. Most of the countries in our peer group have already vaccinated more than 60 percent of their populations, with Portugal, Spain and Denmark surpassing 70 percent. The U.S., by contrast, is stuck at around 53 percent.

The blame lies in large part with a rightwing disinformation campaign that’s sought to discredit the vaccines and the people promoting them. The U.S. is unique among rich nations in the degree of political polarization surrounding pandemic response. From cable hosts to U.S. Senators to random cranks with high social media follower counts, the message to conservatives has been remarkably consistent: The vaccine is dangerous. It doesn’t work. You don’t need it. Covid isn’t that much of a threat.

The net result of this relentless pressure: even in the midst of a variant surge that’s proven especially lethal in conservative areas, nearly 40 percent of Republicans say they’re either unwilling to get the vaccine or uncertain about it, compared to just 15 percent of Democrats.

But the Republican turn against vaccines didn’t happen in a vacuum. The anti-vax movement has been laying the groundwork for decades, and it’s useful to think of both Republicans’ hesitancy and Democrats’ squeamishness over vaccine mandates as the fruits of a sustained campaign to sow doubt about the benefits of inoculation.

If none of this changes, we’re on track to suffer another 100,000 Covid deaths by December 1.