Should I Get the COVID Vaccine?

Yes, and here's why

Posted Jan 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

A vicious circle in the making

So you’ve gotten the COVID vaccine or are planning to get it, and could be forgiven for thinking people who hesitate or decline to do so are only hurting themselves, right? Maybe you’ve seen the posts on social media showing Charles Darwin saying “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” implying that natural selection will automatically weed out those, and only those, who avoid vaccination.

But pandemics aren’t that simple, and we could all suffer the consequences of widespread vaccination hesitancy.

Here’s what could happen this year and beyond: About 40 percent of the population (over 120 million people in the U.S.) could refuse COVID-19 vaccines (according to Pew Research), and a good number of those will get infected, spawning an ever-growing number of COVID virus mutations. Some of those mutations could  “escape” both natural immunity from prior infections and artificial immunity from vaccines, infecting still more people, who will in turn spawn more mutations, infecting more people in an ever-widening spiral that vaccine developers may struggle to keep up with.

Therefore, some people exercising the right to decide what to do with their own bodies are almost certain to help cause death or long-term disability (due to lasting heart, lung, kidney, and neurological damage) in others.

Lots of others.

As harsh as that sounds, epidemiological science suggests that’s exactly the scenario staring us in the face right now.

What to do about it

The year 2020 taught us that we cannot rely solely on logic, statistics, or projections of vicious circles (like the one just presented) to make people believe that their “personal choices” to avoid masks or social distancing aren’t harmless.

For instance, exit polls in the November 2020 election showed that many Trump voters did not think that COVID posed a serious problem, believing that the virus was a hoax, vastly overblown for political reasons, a way for doctors to charge higher fees, or simply “just another cold.” Thus it should come as no surprise that many of those same voters don’t believe in masks or social distancing, and especially don’t believe in lockdowns, school closures, mandatory quarantines, and other public health measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, just this month, a national poll found that fewer than 40 percent of Trump voters surveyed said they want the COVID-19 vaccine.

For better or worse, the conflating of politics, religion, and philosophy with the COVID response has left us vulnerable to a vicious-circle scenario, with almost no hope that even a fast-climbing death rate will change anyone’s mind in time to prevent the downward spiral.

Politics being politics, especially with a sizable fraction of the U.S. population still denying the grave threat that COVID poses, government vaccine mandates—other than perhaps in schools—aren’t going to be the answer.

The answer, if there is one, lies in the private sector, companies who desperately need the pandemic to end so they can stay in business and even get back to making decent profits. Companies such as Trader Joe's and Chobani seem to get this and are now offering to pay employees to get vaccinated. And restaurants in Dubai are offering discounts to patrons who can prove they were vaccinated.

It’s unclear whether such measures will put a dent in the pandemic, but operant conditioning theory, where rewards increase desired behaviors, suggests that it might.

Learning theory also suggests that using financial “sticks” as well as the financial “carrots” holds promise.

Companies could legally refuse to hire (or keep) employees who don’t choose to get vaccinated, and airlines, bus lines, rental car companies and rail services can refuse service to those who turn down vaccines when they are widely available. Restricting someone’s travel or ability to meet others—and thus to do business—could definitely hit people in their pocketbooks, making them re-think their political or philosophical objections to vaccination.

Thus far, with the exception of health care providers, very few companies have adopted mandatory vaccination policies and few businesses plan to restrict customers based upon their vaccination status. Most companies are taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping the less controversial, purely voluntary approaches will work.

But we already know, from experience over the last year, that many people will continue to resist voluntary preventative measures. By late summer or early fall, when everyone will likely have had a chance to get vaccinated, companies who want to get back to profitability (or even survive) may feel increasing pressure to take off the gloves and make vaccination mandatory for both employees and customers.

Why bring this up now, when many more people want vaccines than can get them? 

Because companies, especially big ones that can make a real difference, are conservative and slow to make up their minds, weighing every option, looking at the problem from the point of view of shareholders, lawyers, employees, customers, civil libertarians, politicians, competitors, suppliers, unions, etc. 

And that’s as it should be, because forcing employees and customers to vaccinate is not a step to be taken lightly.

But companies should start the lugubrious process of making up their minds now because governments have shown themselves to be largely impotent in enforcing healthy behaviors, so our last hope may be companies with good old-fashioned profit motives.

No Ph.D. in psychology or expertise in operant conditioning is needed to understand the old adage: “Money talks and BS walks.”

And if ever there was a time when we needed “BS” to walk away from us, that time is now.