(In all of this I am talking about people over fifty, who have the biggest risk.)
The first thing G told me, between drags on her cigarettes, was that she was a hairdresser. The second thing she told me was she was unvaccinated. She said this no differently than where she was from (born and raised near by), what type of music she liked, how many kids she had (three, all grown) and other introductory small talk.
I was in a bar in rural Massachusetts, sitting outside alone, near the smoking table. I hadn’t asked her any questions, but was clearly an outsider among regulars who talked at me and around me. I don’t remember exactly why she chose to be unvaccinated, but I can guess. I have heard so many versions from people similar to G across the country. So many people who proudly tell you, almost as quickly as they tell you where they are from and their name, that they are unvaccinated.
Maybe it was like what S, an old man in the South Bronx told me, that it would turn him into a Zombie. Or L, a middle-aged woman, in central Pennsylvania that “Miss Bettie from X, a few towns over, she got the shot, had a stroke, died. Same with Miss Bettie’s sister. Shot. Stroke. Died.” Or maybe it was like D in Indianapolis, who said “It is made from the same stuff in rat poison.” Or maybe it was like P in Florence, South Carolina, who said she ‘worked in Y store since this all started, all around people, and I haven’t gotten it. I must have some sorta natural immunity.'
Everyone mentioned above, G included, has had a rather rough life. As measured by someone like me, or by most readers of this. Not as measured by any of them. They are just getting by doing the best they can and that means some bumps in the road here and there. Sometimes that includes accidents, overdoses, firings, bankruptcies, felony gun charges, addictions, etc. But that is just life.
Everyone was without a college degree. Or in my lingo, in the Back Row. Everyone was proud of being unvaccinated, and almost everyone told me without me asking. They wanted me to know, much as someone wants you to know they are a Packers fan, or an Ohio State fan.
The demographics of the unvaccinated I have met is very similar to the demographics of the rest of the Back Row. It is mostly white, but minorities are over-represented, relative to the general population of the US. To the degree they are political, it is mostly non-voters, and like non-voters, while they may have a strong allegiance to a “side,” they don’t think much of the process. “Everyone is equally corrupt, but at least Trump is honest about it.”
The whites in the group mostly support Trump, but that isn’t really surprising. Some like Old Man Bernie. Some think he is a commie. Some even voted for Biden, “But I got a lot of shit for that.” Some are, by income alone, upper middle class. They might own a small chain of local tire stores. Or they might have a lawncare biz that has done well. Most aren’t though. Most are lower middle class to poor. But that is the Back Row.
What they all have in common is a distrust of certain authority. Mostly that means academics and bureaucrats who do things they can’t fully understand, see the value in, or ever aspire to. Like what do you actually do? Like what do you build? People pay you for that?
Or to frame it as they would, if they knew the language, “A justified cynicism of an out of touch bureaucratic elite.” Vaccines are being touted by those types of elites. So they must be questioned. Must be pushed back against.
If you spend significant time outside of the fancy neighborhoods filled with college grads and post grads, you quickly realize how normal conspiracy theories are. You get used to hearing some wild stuff, so much so, you tend to tune it out. “Satellites cause hurricanes.” “AIDS and crack were put into our communities by the CIA,” and countless anti-semetic rants voiced by people who don’t necessarily realize how offensive it is.
Yet nobody turns those into an identity. A group to proudly join. Being unvaccinated is different in that way. It is worn as a badge of honor, a club membership card, among people who have never trusted authority, and see being unvaccinated as a way to take a little control of the situation. A way to stick it to those uptight scolds who been telling me what to do all the time and are always fucking stuff up for me.
It didn’t help that Covid policy, especially the first year of it, was all over the map. What you mean it didn’t come from a lab? THEY GOT A GODDAMN COVID LAB RIGHT IN THE CITY IT STARTED IN. WHAT YOU MEAN MY KIDS CAN’T GO TO THE SKATEPARK. IT’S OUTDOORS! People may not be fully educated, but they got common sense.
It certainly doesn’t help that getting vaccinated has become politicized, turned into another football to tussle over.
It is depressing as hell. During these talks I do my best to gently push back. Because gently is the only way to go here. I am, however, not necessarily the best person to push back. If they talk to me long enough, they notice, even six months later, I still have some lingering symptoms of Bell’s Palsy, which I got following my vaccination. I still have to put drops in my right eye every now and then, still have to drink oddly out of only one side of my mouth. I can’t honestly say there isn’t some minor risk, even though I do add and emphasize, “I would have still gotten vaccinated again. Having my risk of death cut down by 10 times is like, huge man. Worth a few eye drops now and then.”
I am not a policy person. I am only here to describe what I see, and try to offer a little advice to policy people.
1) There is about 15% - 30% of the population who won’t get vaccinated, almost no matter how hard you try. It has become core to who they are.
2) The only way to possible reach them is by people like them. You can’t put an outsider on the TV to preach to them. Certainly not one with lots of credentials. It has to come from within their community. But not the mayor, or the local this or that. It has to be a normie like them. Go into the community, find the regular at the bowling alley, or church, or bar, that is central to it, and change their mind. Sit them down, talk them through it, without scolding, without scorn, without talking down. Refute the rumors, one by one (no, Miss Betty’s stroke had nothing to do with the vaccine, and her sister didn’t have a stroke).
3) Beyond that, at some point policy has to understand that a core group of people are going to chose this hill, this chance to own the smug elites, to die on. That really sucks.
Since this is my blog, I want to end by pivoting to the deeper issue I always focus on. The meaning gap in America. That people have decided to turn not being vaccinated, a pretty damn reckless position for someone over 50 to have, into an identity, shows how desperate people are to join a club. To find a place that accepts them. Come on in. Join us. The losers everyone hates. The dumb, the drop outs. The people with bad taste. The people who make bad choices. Own your loser-dom. Make one more stupid decision. Come on!
That we have, as a nation, managed to turn something so basic as taking a shot to not die of something that has already killed 762,000 people, into a political football. A source of identity. Is really sad.
I would say this is the proverbial canary in a coalmine of far deeper problems. But we have had so many canary in the coalmine moments, from the opioid epidemic, to the election of Trump, and yet we keep on marching along, sending more and more miners down into the shaft, like nothing is fundamentally broken.
That is sad and depressing. Very very sad and depressing.