2021-05-14-TEENSVAX-5

While her teacher Kevin Reilly holds her hand for support, Victoria Wollam, 15, of Buxton School in Williamstown receives her first dose of the vaccine during a clinic at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish Center in North Adams on Thursday.

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare some of America’s starkest inequities. It’s also likely to make them considerably worse, if vaccination statistics are any indication.

A deadly viral enemy requires a united front, which the U.S. has struggled to build since COVID’s arrival on our shores last year. The unnecessary politicization of the virus ahead of the 2020 elections left us with sizable partisan gaps in vaccine enthusiasm. Similarly, a health care system riddled with inequalities has produced significant racial gaps as well. But recent polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows another fault line that predicts willingness to get the jab: class.

According to the most recent numbers, no matter how you slice it, working-class members of any given group are less likely to have received a vaccine and more likely to be hesitant. The Kaiser survey’s class analysis hinges on a variable that’s driving American income inequality, and now vaccine inequality, more and more: whether respondents have a bachelor’s degree.

In some ways, this is surprising, since it suggests that the already large gaps in vaccine enthusiasm between certain groups — e.g., race or political stance — might not even be the biggest gaps we’re facing as we attempt to beat back the pandemic. But it also more underscores a grim reality that’s been apparent for some time: We are a painfully divided country, and whether those divisions fall along educational, economic or racial lines, the consequences of these deep disparities are devastating.

It’s not a stretch to consider why structurally disadvantaged Americans tend to be the most skeptical of important institutions, public health or otherwise. The Tuskegee effect is real, so named for the notorious 20th-century syphilis experiments on Black men, showing that past injustices continue to extract a cruel and discriminatory toll on vulnerable people. The opioid overdose epidemic continues to traumatize the country, disproportionately crushing poorer families from rural Appalachia to inner cities. That these populations might have misgivings about trusting health authorities or pharmaceutical advancements is not particularly shocking.

The only way to defeat the novel coronavirus is through vaccination. Yet the vulnerable populations rendered most skeptical of vaccination are now more vulnerable to COVID’s dangerous touch because of that skepticism. This is the deadly danger of division, exposing the weaknesses of a society that cannot rally around a cause against a common enemy even as it has killed us by the hundreds of thousands.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

The health of our nation depends on bridging this gap. What can be done to help it? As the Kaiser data shows, there’s an informational divide layered on top of the vaccination divide. For instance, about a quarter of Americans who aren’t yet vaccinated are still unsure of whether someone who previously had COVID should still get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other federal health leaders say yes, everyone who can should get vaccinated.

Working-class people tend to have far less time on their hands when it comes to getting vaccinated — not just making and attending the appointment but getting properly informed on the vaccine. As such, they’re more vulnerable to sensationalism and misinformation. Whether you’re vaccine-hesitant yourself or trying to convince a loved one to get the jab, arm yourself with knowledge: The CDC’s website has a frequently asked questions section to help anyone seeking information.

Some are also calling for greater incentives to getting vaccinated, whether from employers or at the state level. Ohio introduced a lottery that will randomly award five $1 million prizes to five adults and a full-ride college scholarship to five children ages 12 to 17 who get vaccinated. This is certainly a creative approach, and it seems to be paying off in Ohio, where the state Department of Health and the Associated Press say that vaccination rates have climbed since the so-called Vax-a-Million program was announced. That apparent success might grab the attention of other states.

Nevertheless, the division at the root of this vaccine skepticism must be addressed. The success of certain incentive programs like the Ohio lottery is good, but it’s telling of a deeper problem: We’re apparently so bad at talking to each other, we can’t convince a critical mass of our population to get a free shot with minimal side effects that protects them, their family and their community without throwing in a lottery ticket. In order to fully finish off COVID-19, and to better secure America’s future ahead of the next inevitable crisis, this communication breakdown must be vanquished.

To those who remain skeptical: There are plenty of examples, from Tuskegee to Purdue Pharma, of medical developments that warrant your skepticism. This vaccine is unequivocally not one of them. As has been stated here numerous times, the evidence is clear: From extensive clinical trials to broad real-world application, the COVID vaccines have had the most scrutinized rollout of any new medical treatment in recent history. The vaccines available to the American public are remarkably safe and effective at preventing the contraction and spread of SARS-CoV-2.

We are a nation that landed on the beaches of Europe to beat back the forces of fascism and put human beings on the moon. Despite the many flaws in our past and present, our country has shown time and again we can rally together and meet the call to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves when necessary. The sacrifices demanded by the patriotic duty now required of us have arguably never been easier: Get the jab, and help unify our beleaguered country when it’s most needed.