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Can We Please Stop Demonizing the “Unvaccinated?”


When the Covid vaccines first came out, I thought everyone should get at least one shot. My belief was based on evidence that the vaccines significantly lowered the risk of bad outcomes (hospitalization/death), and on what was thought at the time to be the vaccines’ ability to prevent infection and transmission. 

For those in high-risk groups, like older people with underlying conditions, I thought the vaccine was important because it lowered their relatively high risk of dying from the virus. For young, healthier people I thought it was important to lower the risk of infection and transmission in order to protect more vulnerable populations.

That was in late 2020 and early 2021. We now know a lot more about the vaccines and about acquired immunity. Most importantly, we know that while vaccines give good but waning protection from bad outcomes, they do not prevent a person from getting a Covid infection or transmitting the virus to another person. We also know that having had Covid gives you at least as much protection from bad outcomes as the vaccine does.

This is crucial information that must be incorporated into how we view vaccines and how we view each other.

Unfortunately, when I talk to my friends who have been in a so-called “liberal” bubble for the past two years, they are shocked to hear that an unvaccinated person poses as much, or as little, risk to others as we – the triple vaxxed! – do. They just have this feeling that someone who’s unvaccinated is dangerous to them, or to society, in some way. 

I understand where their fear and misunderstanding come from. First, of course, is the ocean of hysteria and misinformation they’ve been swimming in for the past two years. Second is the original (and in some places ongoing) vaccine campaign that emphasizes the importance of protecting not just oneself but others. Third is the experience we’ve had with other vaccines that have been able to eradicate or at least very radically reduce the prevalence of serious diseases like polio.

Given all that baggage, I’m finding it very hard to change people’s minds. Yet I persist. 

Other than a simple pursuit of scientific data and truth, I believe it’s crucial to disabuse my friends and neighbors of the unfounded biases they harbor against “the unvaccinated” because that is turning into a label used to unnecessarily and unjustly marginalize a whole group of people. Like “the untouchables” or “the undocumented” this type of label contains a pejorative assumption about the members of the group that, in turn, justifies negative treatment of them.

In my world of the liberal coastal elites, the negative treatment of “the unvaccinated” manifests itself mostly in unjust exclusion from the places I used to view as the most inclusive, enlightened and welcoming: performing arts venues, community arts organizations, colleges and universities.

In my campaign to stop this negative treatment, I hereby beseech the leaders of such organizations and anyone else who can speak out on such matters to stop making fear-based decisions and refrain from using judgment-laden labels to justify such decisions.

Vaccine mandates have no public health benefit, which is why they are not recommended by any global, national or local public health bodies (WHO, CDC, state and local health commissions, etc.). 

Therefore, any institution that still has such mandates is going against the recommendations of public health experts to unjustly discriminate against a very large group of people. Another important point is that, in the US, “the unvaccinated” include a disproportionate number of people of color and young people (see CDC data), which means the bias against this group overlaps with biases against traditionally marginalized populations.

Here’s what I want my friends, neighbors, arts/education leaders and anyone interested in truth and justice to do:

1) Let’s stop using the term “the unvaccinated” as a blanket putdown. Many people from many different demographic, scientific, cultural and religious groups have decided for whatever reason not to get the Covid vaccine and/or not to get boosted. Many of them have already had and recovered from Covid. None of them poses more danger to others than a vaccinated person does. 

2) Anyone at an institution that still has vaccine mandates should come out strongly and forcefully against the mandates and explain why they are not just unnecessary, but unjust.

3) We should all educate ourselves about the ever-evolving state of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the vaccines, and public health, to make sure we are not basing policies on outdated guidelines or unsupported assumptions.

Thankfully we are moving away from many of the deeply misguided, terribly damaging Covid policies that have plagued us (pun intended) for the last two years. Let us now work together to get rid of this last vestige of scientifically ignorant, panic-induced groupthink.

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  • Debbie Lerman

    Debbie Lerman, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, has a degree in English from Harvard. She is a retired science writer and a practicing artist in Philadelphia, PA.

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