Covid patient Scott Roe. Photo / CBS News
Scott Roe sat upright and alert in his hospital bed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, having mostly recovered from the life-threatening pneumonia caused by his Covid-19 infection.
“Am I going to get a vaccine? No,” he told CBS reporter David Begnaud.
Nor did he regret avoiding the coronavirus vaccines before his hospitalisation. If he could go back in time, Roe said, he would make the same choice.
“I’d have gone through this,” he said, referring to the ordeal of his illness.
“Don’t shove it down my throat. That’s what local, state, federal administrations are trying to do, is shove it down your throat.
“That’s their agenda. Their agenda is to get you vaccinated.”
That is indeed the government’s agenda here in the United States, where the Covid vaccines are free and plentiful. Because if everyone gets vaccinated, fewer people will die.
“We are either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic, or we’re going to accept death,” said Dr Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of the hospital in which Roe was sitting.
For millions of Americans, that isn’t a good enough reason.
About half the US adult population is fully vaccinated, and 66 per cent of people have received at least one dose. But the country’s initially rapid vaccine rollout has hit a wall of hesitancy and, in some cases, outright hostility.
With a third of Americans still vulnerable to Covid, case numbers and hospitalisations are rising again, this time driven by the more infectious Delta variant.
Here are the two most important statistics: of the people in hospital, about 97 per cent are unvaccinated. Among those who are dying, 99.5 per cent are unvaccinated.
Yet people are still refusing the vaccines. Polling consistently shows between 20 and 30 per cent of Americans do not intend to get vaccinated. That includes almost half of Republican voters.
They’re putting themselves and every other unprotected person around them at risk, and creating a potential breeding ground for even worse variants than Delta.
Roe’s remorseless interview from that hospital bed in Louisiana this week was emblematic of the problem.
So was the palpable frustration of Kay Ivey, the conservative Republican Governor of Alabama, whose population has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people in the country.
“Folks are supposed to have common sense,” Ivey vented on Friday, with the air of a person at the very end of her tether.
“It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.
“I’ve done all I know how to do. I can encourage you do to something, but I can’t make you take care of yourself.”
It’s interesting to hear an American politician, particularly someone with Ivey’s conservative bona fides, call for unvaccinated people to be “blamed”.
Other Republican leaders – even the ones encouraging vaccination, as opposed to the ones actively spreading misinformation about the vaccines and comparing health officials to Nazis – have typically warned against being too aggressive in efforts to convince the hesitant.
“You’re seeing some people try to bully people into doing things instead of just encouraging them,” pro-vaccine Congressman Steve Scalise said, for instance.
“We should be encouraging people to get it, not trying to threaten people.”
But gentle encouragement only goes so far.
“I have not and I will not [get the vaccine]. I’m not a guinea pig. There’s not a chance,” Mike Clark, an elderly gentleman from rural Arkansas, told CNN reporter Elle Reeve this week.
“I believe that it’s a freedom issue.”
He said, proudly, that he’d probably worn a face mask for a total of one hour throughout the whole pandemic, despite the public health guidance recommending masks for many months to help stymie the spread of the virus.
“If it’s so communicable, why am I still standing?” Clark asked, as though declaring checkmate in a game of rhetorical chess.
The answer is that he got lucky. Unlike 626,000 other Americans, who got Covid and died.
A person like Clark, or Roe, is practically unpersuadable. These guys are determined not to get the vaccine, don’t trust a word the government says, and no amount of “encouragement” will move them from that position.
So here’s the crux of the issue: at what point should the US stop coddling the anti-vaxxers? At what point should it concede the carrot isn’t working, and trade it for a stick? At what point does the government’s duty to protect public health outweigh an individual’s right to make poor decisions?
Some would say never.
Here’s what I think is a more balanced position: in a liberal democracy, you should generally be able to do whatever you want, until your behaviour clearly harms someone else.
This is the principle that limits freedom of speech, for example. The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects most forms of speech, but does not give people the right to incite “lawless action” or violence.
You can say dumb stuff. You can be cruel, or ignorant. But you can’t say something that will bring harm to another person.
And that really is the key point when it comes to people refusing to take the Covid vaccines.
If you decide to go for a private swim in shark-infested waters, the only person you’re endangering is yourself. It’s idiotic, and you might end up dead, but shark bites are not transmissible.
Covid is. If you deliberately remain unvaccinated when vaccines are available, you are not just risking your own life, but the lives of your loved ones, and any other unvaccinated person unfortunate enough to cross your path.
This isn’t complicated. The more the virus is transmitted, the more likely it is to kill someone.
There’s an additional risk. Should the virus circulate in the community for long enough, there is a chance it will mutate into a variant that can overcome the vaccines.
We’ve seen an unsettling degree of selfishness in the US throughout the pandemic, more so than in Australia.
Last year it was people refusing to wear masks or practise social distancing. Now it’s people rejecting the vaccines. In spirit they boil down to the same thing: some Americans think their desire to defy the rules is more important than protecting other people’s lives.
Other countries have chosen not to accept that attitude.
Today Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, told unvaccinated citizens they would need to present a negative Covid test result – obtained at their own expense – to attend large events.
“I respect different views, but there is a time and a place in which this discussion needs to stop,” Bennett said.
“The science is unequivocal: the vaccines work. They are effective and safe.
“Those who refuse vaccines are endangering their health, those around them, and the freedom of every Israeli citizen. Those who refuse vaccines hurt us all.
“As of August 8, those who refuse vaccines will not be able to go to the cinema, the theatre, the synagogue, the amusement park, the football game, or any activity with over 100 people, unless they bring a negative result from a coronavirus test, at their expense.
“Yes, they will fully bear the cost of the test. There is no reason why taxpayers and people who have carried out their civic duty to get vaccinated should fund tests for those who refuse to get vaccinated.”
French President Emmanuel Macron took a similar approach recently. The number of people booking vaccine appointments in France immediately shot up.
America is a different beast, and there’s no doubt that more coercive measures from the government – requiring vaccination to board domestic flights, for example, or to enter sport stadiums – would spark a fierce backlash.
Heck, the Republican Party positively convulsed with outrage earlier this month when President Joe Biden suggested going “door to door” to inform people about the vaccines, as though the government talking to its constituents were somehow a scandalous intrusion upon their personal freedoms.
The objections just don’t stack up.
You want to refuse the vaccines? Fine. That’s your right. But you don’t have a right to endanger other people.