My attitude toward vaccine reluctance has gone through something like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial (“They’ll come around”), bewilderment (“How could people believe so much nonsense?”), frustration (“Seriously, what are these people thinking?”), anger (“It’s an epidemic of idiocy!”), and finally, acceptance (“Calm down, take a breath, this is complicated”).
Acceptance does not mean moral acceptance. Nothing in this column suggests that people who choose to endanger themselves, their families, and their communities are doing something admirable. In a sober, sane, science-minded, non-polarized, high-trust, data-driven country, everyone without a compelling medical or religious reason would be rushing to take the jab. In that country, herd immunity—when resistance is so prevalent that the virus can’t spread—would now be in view, or even reached already.
New research by Fishman, Litan, and three other colleagues is even more impressive: When offered compensation, unvaccinated people’s self-reported intention to take the jab rose by 20 to 25 percentage points. Moreover, $200 was enough to produce that effect. “It looks like a lot of people who haven’t been vaccinated aren’t diehards; they’re just apathetic and aren’t strongly opposed and just haven’t gotten around to it,” Fishman said. “For them, the financial reward is appealing and can increase their motivation.” In fact, the positive effect was even more pronounced among younger people and people with less education and lower incomes: exactly the populations policymakers have had trouble reaching with civic appeals.
Still, resistance persists, partly because of moral qualms. Isn’t getting vaccinated a civic duty, something people should do voluntarily for the community? Do we really want to transactionalize the obligations of citizenship? And isn’t it sad that, in America in 2021, we might even need to?