Science

Why Are White People Scared of the COVID Vaccine?

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Why are some people hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine? Obviously there are a million different reasons why, just like there are a million different reasons why some people don’t want to get any other kind of vaccine. But of course, if we can identify groups of people who all share a certain viewpoint, we can take efforts to address that state of mind in the hope of convincing them to get vaccinated.

One such group of people is “black people.” A lot of people are very concerned that African Americans, as a whole, are hesitant to get a vaccine, based on surveys like this Pew research poll that found that only 42% of Black Americans said they would get a vaccine, compared to about 60% for whites and Hispanics and 80% for English-speaking Asian Americans.

There are a few problems with this, though. One issue is that I said “groups who all share a certain viewpoint,” and just saying “black people” isn’t super helpful. If I said “white people” are hesitant to get the vaccine, you’d probably have some questions because you’d understand that that is not a homogenous group. Like, they’re individuals. We need to narrow it down a little more if we want to do anything about it, and honestly any additional qualifier would help: poor black people? Educated black people? Black people who are super into anime? Something.

Second of all, that poll was conducted in November of 2020 and the question asked was “Would you definitely or probably get a vaccine for COVID-19 if one were available today?”. Can we remember that far back? Do we remember what was going on back then? Like, even I made a video a month prior to this poll about how I would be super skeptical of a vaccine that was rushed out by the 2020 election. And I’m a middle class white person! I’d be skeptical as hell if I were one of the races that had just spent the past four years being targeted and denigrated by my white supremacist government. Like I know the pandemic has made time all weird but we had actual Nazis in the government. We still do but we did then, too.

Is that the sole reason why a large number of black Americans said they wouldn’t get a vaccine back then? No! Again, there are a lot of reasons why people do anything, and Black Americans are not a monolith. But we can look at a follow-up Pew research poll that was done this month that found that now, 61% of Black Americans say they will get a vaccine, compared to 69% of white people (nice). Hmm, wonder what changed?

So the main problem Black Americans have isn’t vaccine hesitancy, it’s vaccine access, as reported in this great article at Rolling Stone and also in this piece at FiveThirtyEight. The tl;dr is we don’t have enough vaccine distribution sites in poor black neighborhoods, we’re not making sure essential workers have the time and opportunity to get their shots, and richer white people are constantly swooping in to take spots that aren’t meant for them. Because that’s what we do here.

But while the difference between the races has narrowed, the difference between political parties has exploded: turns out that according to this month’s Pew survey only 56% of Republicans plan to get a vaccine, compared to 83% of Democrats. And unlike guessing things about an entire race, an entire political party gives us a bit of a better idea of why they might be hesitant since they, you know, chose to join that political party.

The Pew poll found that most people, regardless of what race they are, say they’re hesitant to get the vaccine mostly due to potential side effects. (For the record, the side effects can be annoying! I have friends who have been laid low for a day with a fever or general malaise. Besides the rare serious allergic reaction that happens within a few minutes of administering the vaccine, I have yet to hear of anyone with any side effects that compare to actually having COVID, which sounds fucking awful for the people who experience symptoms, not to mention the potential long-term effects.)

But why, specifically, are so many conservatives scared of the vaccine? The Pew poll doesn’t break it down by political orientation so instead let’s turn to another expert: Meghan McCain.

That’s right, according to Meghan, the reason why white conservatives are scared of the COVID vaccine is because back in September of 2020 a black Democrat said she “would not trust Donald Trump and it would have to be a credible source of info that talks about the efficacy and reliability of whatever he’s talking about, I would not take his word for it.”

Hold on, that doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe there’s another reason Meghan is upset about the vaccine. Oh yep here we go (3:41). It’s because Meghan, a rich white woman, can’t skip the line. Womp womp.

Here’s another thought: that same recent Pew survey found that Republicans who say science has had a mostly positive effect on society has plummeted from 70% in 2019 to 57% by 2021, which Meghan demonstrates perfectly by going on to compare Donald Trump with Dr. Fauci, saying that as liberals didn’t trust Trump on science she doesn’t trust…this prominent scientist. Amazing. The Pew researchers point out that the drop in trust in science is driven almost entirely by white adult Republicans. Like Meghan.
I was curious if other countries had similar reasons for vaccine hesitancy as Americans, and I found that yes, at least in the UK they’re mostly concerned with side effects and the speed of the vaccine development. But I also happened across this study, that found that people in the UK and Turkey tended to be more skeptical of the vaccine if they believed the virus had a “non-natural” origin — meaning that if they thought it was created in a lab in Wuhan, they were less likely to want to get the vaccine, pointing to a possible fundamental mistrust of scientists. I found this interesting because immediately prior to reading that study I happened upon this absolutely jaw-dropping clip of Jordan Peterson on Bret Weinstein’s podcast talking complete nonsense. Like, first of all no, Jordan Peterson, “medicine” hasn’t killed more people than it’s saved you fucking peanut brain. But second of all, I could have sworn that Weinstein was one of the “Intellectual Dark Web” losers who was smart enough to actually try to distance himself from the rest of those jabronies but I guess not because he just casually mentioned that he thinks COVID-19 was created in a lab. Dr. Adam Rutherford links to a few good resources that describe why the majority of scientists do not believe that, because it looks and behaves exactly the way they’d expect a natural coronavirus mutation to behave, but there you have it, in real time. Put it next to last month’s announcement from Joe Rogan that he’s scared of the vaccine and this update from Fox News and we’re getting really close to drilling down on why one significant group — white conservatives — are really avoiding getting vaccinated: because even their “intellectual” tastemakers are blissfully ignorant and terrified of science.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. Jeez! That ‘medical error is the Xth cause of death’…THING has been rattling around the quack-o-sphere for decades. Never questioned, it seems. But apparently the unchanging nature of the slogan means it’s ‘unfalsified.’

    1. Pretty sure it’s the same people who trot out the “if you die of anything during the COVID pandemic, it’s ascribed to COVID” canard. If you die after having received medical treatment, you died because of the medical treatment.

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