What is the Goal of Vaccine Discourse?
Every day of 2021 brings more good COVID-19 vaccine news in the United States. As of early March, an average of nearly two million Americans were being vaccinated per day. The FDA approved the Johnson and Johnson one-shot vaccine back in late February. States are loosening their restrictions on who is eligible and how they can receive their shots. At the same time, coronavirus-related news remains cautiously optimistic. The drop in cases has slowed but remains steady. Warmer spring air, along with numerous medical developments, have made many Americans more optimistic than they had been in months.
Questions still remain, however. What will the impact of the virus variants be? How will state governments such as Texas and Mississippi impede the fight against the virus by repealing mask mandates? And, most importantly, how should we as a nation be talking about the COVID-19 vaccine? How do we overcome the continued hesitancy to get the shot and the constant fearmongering and conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine? Resistance to the vaccine has dropped considerably since December, with a recent study showing only 24% of Americans planning on not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them. How can we get those numbers down to zero?
The goal of vaccine discourse should be to share information that will push as many people as possible to legally obtain the vaccine. Public officials, policy writers, and others should be crafting their messages to pursue this goal. There are no certainties about vaccine messaging, but it is obvious that portraying the vaccine as helpful and effective is central to an effective communications policy. People enjoy having the power to change society for the better. They want to go back to doing the things they were doing before March 2020. The vaccine is a step every individual can take to protect themselves, protect their friends, and bring society back to normal. Why wouldn’t everyone want to emphasize its importance?
Unfortunately, many writers and public officials have not made “more vaccines in arms” their number one messaging goal. They want to emphasize other, less tangible or beneficial goals in their messages and tweets. Many of these writers believe in the power of public discourse to dictate behavior. They believe that beneficial messages about vaccines will be lumped together with positive rhetoric about the virus itself not being harmful.
According to these writers, this soft-on-viruses rhetoric was a major reason why the United States has suffered more than any other developed nation. Bloomberg’s Noah Smith summarized their views in a recent tweet in response to a story about declining case numbers: “we’re going to eat the marshmallow, we always do.” These writers believe that if they say the vaccine will end the pandemic, unvaccinated people will go out and return to their pre-2020 behavior. They will increase case numbers, strain hospitals, and lead to a worsening of the pandemic right at the moment when cases should be dropping.
Along with the desire to be as serious as possible about the disease, many writers also want to prove how they were right all along. This tendency has shown itself in the grim spectacle of numerous writers and thinkers posting one-year anniversary tweets about how right they were regarding the impact of the coronavirus. Volunteers have even set up a Twitter account, @YearCovid, designed to collect many of these stories and headlines. Blasting “I was right” about a disease that has killed half a million Americans should be viewed as a shameful act. But it is yet another indication that a writer is taking the virus seriously. Posting about how vaccines will end it is not viewed in the same light and is, therefore, not as popular a position to take in the vaccine discourse.
This approach has its own faults. Americans are not embracing the vaccine as quickly as they should have. One of the main reasons is that many people do not see the benefits as clearly as they should. If people still have to wear masks, if crowds will still be limited, and if the COVID-19 virus may eventually go away, then why go out of one’s way to get a vaccine? If the virus is a killer, and vaccines are in short supply, then why not wait to give vaccine doses to more vulnerable populations? These people are, of course, joined by people with concerns about vaccine safety and those who still believe the virus is a “hoax.” Too-careful writers and skeptics have combined to create a significant vaccine-skeptic segment of the population that has helped contribute to the nation’s slow rollout.
The naysayers and nitpickers have created a scenario in which their somber words have been internalized by millions of Americans. These Americans want to do the right thing. They want to be careful. The people who they look to for guidance, instead, want to prove how they were right all along and how serious they view the disease. They have put people at risk by pointing out every possible risk that could be associated with the disease. And even in a period of the virus receding, they still cannot help themselves in portraying every potential threat and negative trend associated with this deadly disease.
Pundits and writers have immense power in the United States today. Their work was a major reason why it took the country so long to embrace masks in the spring, and also a reason why masks became so popular later in the year. The goal of virus-related discourse must be to push the clearest message possible to get people vaccinated. More vaccines means that the United States will have a greater chance of ending the pandemic and saving lives. This goal is more important than any vaccine discourse pundit showing off how serious they are about social distancing, or how smart they were one year ago.