by Julie Pham, Ph.D.
In King County, by now, nearly 85% of people aged 20–69 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m part of that majority. I’ve been fully vaccinated since March. Before I begin, I want to be clear: I am not arguing for or against vaccinations. I’m asking us in the vaccinated majority to recognize we have more in common with the unvaccinated minority than we realize.
The chances of you knowing someone who isn’t fully vaccinated in the most populous age groups is over 1 in 5. While ardent “anti-vaxxers” who defy COVID-19 protocols are the most vocal of this minority group, they don’t represent everyone who is unvaccinated. I have close ties to some in the minority. They quietly refrain from crowds to reduce risk to themselves and others. They wear masks. They are not belligerent. Many don’t voluntarily share their status because they don’t want to have to defend their choices. Or they want to avoid social ostracization.
With near certainty, you personally know adults in King County who are choosing not to get vaccinated. They probably even let you assume that they are vaccinated because they don’t want to be labeled as “uneducated,” “selfish,” or a “right-wing conspiracist.”
Because I’m part of the majority, I’ve been privy to many conversations in which generous and loving vaccinated people casually talk about the “stupid” unvaccinated as “deserving” of sickness or “asking” for death. I share many of the views of the vaccinated. I admit to feeling schadenfreude when President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 last year. Once vaccinations were widely available, I too read the news of a COVID-19 death looking to see if the deceased was vaccinated or not as a way to calibrate my compassion. I’ve heard many vaccinated people relish exchanging stories of pandemic repentance, when someone expresses remorse for remaining unvaccinated from their COVID-19 deathbed. It has become socially acceptable among the vaccinated to disparage the unvaccinated.
Understandably, the vitriol against the unvaccinated has escalated as the number of cases have risen again. Regardless of our vaccination status, we are all exhausted with how the pandemic is still controlling our lives, limiting our mobility and our daily choices. We’re all afraid for our families, for our lives and for our livelihoods, and most of all, for the unknown.
However, being condescending towards the unvaccinated, or resenting medical treatment of the unvaccinated if they do get COVID-19, doesn’t lead to more vaccinations. Talking while not listening can be counterproductive. If you are vaccinated, have you tried asking people why they aren’t vaccinated, without also trying to persuade them to get vaccinated?
Many in the vaccinated majority assume the choice not to get vaccinated is inherently selfish and only made by those who don’t care about public health. That is an oversimplification. The choice, like all choices, reflects personal systems of beliefs, culture, and priorities. Many of the unvaccinated people I’ve spoken to are plain scared of the vaccine.
Trying to understand people’s fears for not getting vaccinated is a good step toward building a healthier community. The documentary The Panola Project follows Dorothy Oliver and Drucilla Russ-Jackson as they go door-to-door to speak to residents of Panola, a small Alabama town, about getting vaccinated. In an interview with The New Yorker, the documentary filmmaker Rachael DeCruz says, “There’s this very warm and kind of loving and caring way that Dorothy and Ms. Jackson approached those conversations, even when people aren’t in agreement. And it wasn’t done in a way that’s, like, ‘I know better than you.’” In Think Again, organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes “vaccine whisperers” who through genuine curiosity and humility interview unvaccinated people to learn why. Because those interviewed feel heard and respected, they are more likely to change their minds later on about vaccinations.
In my own work of building bridges across diverse communities and viewpoints, I’ve witnessed time and again how we need to create a space for those in the minority to feel heard before they can hear others, for them to express their fears before they can understand others who also have legitimate fears.
After sharing that I was writing this essay, I’ve had longtime friends reveal, “I am unvaccinated.” Another shared, “My wife and I decided not to get vaccinated. One of our best friends told me, ‘You deserve to die,’ and when I did get COVID-19, other friends called me to say ‘See what happens when you don’t get vaccinated.’ I’ve even been accused of supporting Trump, which I don’t.”
When I share I don’t think the unvaccinated should be condemned for their choices, I have been accused by some in the vaccinated majority of protecting or making excuses for the minority. I’ve had friends lecture me on the science of COVID-19 as if I was unvaccinated myself and needed to be persuaded again.
I’m not asking the vaccinated to suppress anger or frustration or fears. There is no denying many innocent people have died from COVID-19. But it’s not just our physical health that is at stake in this pandemic. Our sense of compassion is also being tested. When we shame others for making choices different from our own, we are declaring our fears are more valid than their fears.
Let’s remember that we are still all people, regardless of our vaccination status.
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