Lately, politicians, the media, and healthcare professionals have been using a new term to lock horns with the issue of vaccine hesitancy. Here are five ways that their new phrase, "a pandemic of the unvaccinated", is problematic (and probably racist):
1. It's Antagonistic: It's not a disease-state to be unvaccinated. To associate the stigma of disease with a lack of vaccination just to shame people into getting the vaccine is the kind of rhetoric that makes people dig in their heels about their stance against it.
2. It's Wrong: The incidence of a disease might be dubbed a "pandemic" when it reaches a certain threshold of victims and geographical distribution. The current 'victims' of COVID-19 (those who have it, and to a lesser extent, those who deal with long COVID-19) are victims regardless of their vaccination status (https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/10/breakthrough-covid-cases-why-fully-vaccinated-people-can-get-covid.html).
3. It's Insensitive: Yes. Perhaps the data shows that Covid-19 hotspots are among the unvaccinated. But we know that there are so many different reasons why willing Americans across the country may not have gotten vaccinated yet. These reasons are valid, and often, the result of the U.S.'s history of imperialism, colonialism, and racial capitalism. Have we worked as hard as we can to reach Native Americans on their reservations??? Have we found ways to convince Black people that they won't be guinea pigs (this time)??? Have we made this vaccine uniformly accessible in ways that don't employ charientisms??? Some unvaccinated Americans (many of them minorities) simply can't get the vaccine because they're immuno-compromised. I ask you: how does victim-blaming here help the situation???
4. It's Misleading: Although it is somewhat true that having a large population that can be infected by Covid-19 is 'fertile ground' for the virus to 'revamp itself', it's not the only, nor is it the main reason why the virus could mutate. The Covid-19 virus would mutate, evolve, and change even if every single person on earth was vaccinated. Why? Because it is subject to natural selection (a process that no one controls) just like all other alive (or 'life-adjacent') beings on earth. (Check out more about why I refer to viruses like Covid-19 as 'life-adjacent' here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/.) As a Biologist, I know these things because I was taught them. But most people weren't taught this information in such detail. This leads to an unfair burden of blame that some demographics have to bear due to 1) their ignorance, and 2) the fear-mongering that this phrase breeds. This rhetoric exploits the knowledge gap between scientist and non-scientists as a means to an end. This is exactly the type of manipulation of knowledge and insularity that non-scientists hate us for.
5. It's Misleading (Pt. 2): 'The unvaccinated' is a far more diverse group than the media likes to show us. Sure, there are Black, Latino, and Native Americans in this group--but there are also LOTS of White Americans too. In fact, White Evangelicals are among the least likely of all groups to be vaccinated (https://www.vox.com/22587443/covid-19-vaccine-refusal-hesitancy-variant-delta-cases-rate & https://www.wsj.com/articles/white-evangelicals-resist-covid-19-vaccine-most-among-religious-groups-11627464601 & https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-08-10/white-evangelical-churches-and-the-crisis-of-vaccine-hesitancy). Much of the media has focused on vaccine skepticism as the main culprit for vaccine hesitancy, but the light it's shown in has been different based on which demographics their unvaccinated subjects belong to. For example, a Southern, White man who chose not to get vaccination is depicted as making a political or religious choice. He's 'exercising his rights as a citizen' or as 'a person of faith'. Yet, a Latino woman who chooses not to get vaccinated is depicted as doing so for nothing more than the propagation of criminal activity (hiding from authorities due to her status as undocumented), unfounded fear (superstitions), misinformation (willful ignorance), or a language barrier. These are the narratives that the media would rather push, even though we all know that either of these individuals could have any of these problems. I'm not just saying this for the sake of argument. This is the narrative I have heard pushed on even most balanced of news stations (such as NPR). (Check out the Media Bias Chart for details on how biased the reporting of different news outlets are: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/). Such reporting might sound innocent, but it's not. Context is everything, especially when we consider the aforementioned narrative in conjunction with the historical backdrop of white supremacist stereotypes. These days, racists seem to enjoy seeing how well they can disguise their racism (especially about the habitual behavior of races and their comparative intelligences). But some of us still see what they're up to plain as day. For example, there's a general stereotype that Whites are 'rational', 'organized', and 'practical'. Non-Whites are 'emotional', 'disorganized', and 'impractical' or worse. Diogo (2017) explains these stereotypes about 'the four races' quite clearly in his paper:
"These human “variations”—which, therefore, became to be commonly defined as
“races” by subsequent authors—were: (1) American: red, bilious,
straight—governed by customs; (2) European: white, sanguine, muscular—
governed by customs; (3) Asian: sallow (pale), melancholic, stiff—
governed by opinion; and (4) African: black, phlegmatic, stiff—governed
For a bald, real-world reference of these stereotypes being used in media (literature) within the last century, check out the the story 'Tannis of The Flats' within Lucy Maude Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series. Note the essentialism and racism that she encodes into her book about Tannis, the admixed grand-daughter of a local Native American Chief.
So what happens when language like this is used?
Who gets hurt?
We know who:
And how does it look?
Well...it looks just like this:
Texas Republican Blames Black People For The COVID-19 Surge: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/aug/21/dan-patrick-texas-republican-black-americans-covid-fox-news
We know what they'll do with this guy...don't we?
They'll act like he's a 'bad apple'.
They'll act like he's a 'lone wolf' that's just uncouth.
And yes, some of the daring ones may even call a spade a spade and call his remarks racist. However, considering all the conditioning and programming that he's received, as well as his status as a rich, white, male in power, this is what we should expect. He's just saying aloud what his peers want to believe internally about this pandemic.
Why the façade?