Both political parties have made the mistake of framing vaccines within the tradition of individualism. Even President Joe Biden, who has demonstrated his comfort with a muscular role for government, keeps appealing to individuals to make the right and patriotic choice when it comes to receiving their jabs.
Governors are imploring residents of their states to vaccinate soon. For many, the goal has been to keep making it as easy as possible for persons to have quick access without being too overtly pushy. Incentives, from multimillion-dollar lotteries to baseball tickets to a shot and a beer, have all been thrown in as part of the package. The message has been that the government will keep making vaccines as easy, accessible and attractive as possible.
It’s not enough. Easy, accessible and attractive are important; nobody should face barriers toward receiving vaccines. But citizens must also not see this as an optional inoculation.
Biden and other political leaders need to start thinking about the good of the collective and not just the rights of the individual. Doing so is not some sort of move toward socialism, as conservative critics inevitably argue. Thinking of the common good is as American as apple pie.
The United States has a long history of requiring citizens to participate in programs that help all of us.
Created in 1935, Social Security stipulated that all industrial workers pay taxes to finance pensions for the elderly. During World War II, a mass income tax system and a Selective Service program were essential to defeating the global threat of fascism.
America used taxes to pay for an interstate highway system in 1956 that enabled our communities to grow and spread all over the country. At the state and local levels, we already require students to receive vaccines (mumps, measles and more) if they are going to attend our schools. Individuals need to pass tests and receive licenses if they want to drive, so that everyone on the road is as safe as possible.
Collective obligations have always been part of what actually makes America great and we need to start talking about vaccines through this vital lens. If we want to restore normality on a long-term basis, restore our economy, create opportunity for everyone and live in a society where we and our loved ones are safe, healthy and happy, much more of the population needs to be vaccinated.
Civic obligation is a crucial partner to individual rights. With the pandemic, the connections between these two elements of our political culture have become clear. If we do not insist upon the steps necessary to truly contain Covid-19, and our hospitals start to be overloaded again, individuals in America simply won’t be able to claim their rights.
Over the July Fourth weekend, much of the country enjoyed the sweet taste of what post-pandemic life can be. We can’t afford to take too many steps backward — and the Delta variant is showing us right now how easily that could happen.
Requiring vaccination must be at the heart of our public health agenda.