Scientific and mathematical proficiency in the U.S. lags behind many in the international community. In the age of “misinformation,” “fake news,” and “anti-vaxxers,” the COVID-19 pandemic has punctuated the need to improve scientific literacy in the U.S. Misinformation is often consumed via social media, including the notion that COVID-19 cannot be transmitted in warmer climates and UV bulbs or disinfectant can be used on or in the body to prevent contracting the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled this phenomenon of spreading misinformation as an “infodemic.”
The infodemic has helped fuel existing government distrust. In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 71% of the respondents reported that they would get vaccinated. However, 27% of the public remains ‘vaccine-hesitant.’ Among those who reported being hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, some of the reasons given were side effects, lack of trust in the government to ensure the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, concerns that the vaccine is too new, and concerns over the role of politics in the vaccine development process.
In the Kaiser survey, slightly more Health Care Workers (29%) reported that they would probably not or definitely not get the vaccine, compared to the general population (27%). An alarming number of health care providers in New York, California, and Texas, some of the hardest hit states, have reportedly opted not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. While health care workers are on the frontline of the pandemic, they are subject to the same concerns as the general population. Working within a medical or research field does not assuage concerns or promote unwavering faith in the speed at which some medical advances are brought to market. This is even further complicated by the perceived role of the tumultuous administration in shepherding the process.
An individual’s decision to get vaccinated is based on a subjective calculation of their likelihood of being confronted with the negative event one is trying to avoid. It is assumed that individuals make rational decisions about healthy, protective behaviors and that individuals accurately assess their level of risk. Despite the high rate of COVID-19 transmission among Americans, survey data show that perceptions of COVID-19 risk are correlated with political party, race, age, and income level. Democrats, Blacks, older individuals, and individuals in lower socioeconomic statuses are more likely to perceive COVID-19 as a major health threat.
While COVID-19 transmission does not discriminate, certain groups are at increased risk for contracting the virus and having worse health outcomes. These more vulnerable populations require an intervention that addresses some of the environmental conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play, which places them at increased risk for contracting and transmitting COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic is complex and requires an approach rooted in public health principles including equity, social justice, and accessibility, such that every individual has access to testing and treatment and the environmental conditions that have traditionally contributed to the existing health disparities that are fueling the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in communities of color, are addressed. In addition, there is a need for a national strategy that would help all states work in concert with one another and have a uniform strategy for addressing the pandemic, including mask mandates, testing, contact tracing, vaccine distribution, and treatment.
The speed at which the vaccine has been developed demonstrates scientific ingenuity. However, knowledge alone will not motivate individuals to engage in behaviors that may be considered beneficial by most. What will help promote some of the behaviors needed to decrease the COVID-19 pandemic is a combination of policy, public trust, and education campaigns. Science and, in turn, medicine should not be considered a ‘Black Box’ that is not accessible by the general population. The public needs to be viewed as partners in the goal of reducing COVID-19 transmission, and perhaps then, we can find a resolution to this long and tragic pandemic. Such partnerships will include working with community-based organizations to disseminate accurate information, in addition to testing and vaccination. This will consist of health care providers representing the very communities that they serve and bottom-up strategies where community members are sitting at the table where decisions are made.
The warp speed with which the Coronavirus vaccine has been developed signals an end in sight to the year-long, global tragedy. However, in the age of disappointing series finales (i.e., Game of Thrones), we should not expect for this pandemic to end in a gratifying manner that will immediately assuage our collective anxiety.
Sinead Younge, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology at Morehouse College and a Public Voices for the South Fellow.