Trust deficit endangers benefits of coronavirus vaccine

There is a trust deficit in this country, and it may kill a lot of us.
We haven’t been trusting for a long time, but distrust reached its zenith during and after the recent election.
Distrusting the election results isn’t fatal. But distrusting the experts on the need to get vaccinated for COVID-19 is. Yet there are reports that as many as 50% of Americans won’t get the vaccine when it is available. That is lethal and a true threat to national security, the economy, our way of life, everything.
If we don’t get our jabs, we will continue to die from the coronavirus at an alarming rate. Over 258,000 Americans have perished and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects 298,000 deaths by mid-December.
As I recall, it was during the 1960s that we began wide distrusting. By the end of the Vietnam War, we distrusted on a huge scale. We distrusted what we were told by the military, what we were told by President Lyndon Johnson and then by President Richard Nixon.
We also distrusted the experts. Just about all experts on all subjects, from nuclear power safety to the environmental impact of the Concorde supersonic passenger jet.
Beyond Vietnam, distrust was fed by the unfolding evidence that we had been the victims of systemic lying. This led to big social realignments, as seen in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the environmental movement. These betrayals exacerbated our natural American distrust of officialdom.
The establishment and its experts had been caught lying about the war and about other things. It was a decade that detonated trust, shredded belief in expertise and left many of us feeling that we might as well make it up as we went along.
Now the trust deficit is back and has divided us. Seventy-three million did vote for Trump and many of those believe what, most dangerously, he has said about the pandemic.
The result has been the growth of diabolical myths about COVID-19. Taking seriously some, or all, of Trump’s outpourings on the coronavirus — from his advocacy of sunlight and his off-label drug recommendations, to putting the pandemic out of mind as a “hoax” — fomented its spread.
We have been waiting for a medical breakthrough to repel and conquer COVID-19 and it looks as though that is at hand with the arrival of not one but three vaccines, the first of which should be available in about three weeks to the most vulnerable populations. The development of these vaccines represents a stupendous medical effort: the Manhattan Project of medicine.
But it will all be in vain if Americans don’t trust the authorities and don’t get vaccinated. It looks as though, according to surveys, 50% of the population will get vaccinated. The rest will choose to believe in medical fictions like herd immunity — a pernicious idea that eventually we will all be immune by living with COVID-19. It should be noted that this didn’t happen with other infectious diseases like bubonic plague, smallpox, polio, even the flu.
My informal survey of research doctors puts the odds on who will get vaccinated a little better than 50%. They conclude that one third will get vaccinated, one third will wait to see the results among those who got vaccinated early, and one third won’t get vaccinated, believing that the disease has been hyped and that it isn’t as serious as the media says.
Some of the “COVID-19 deniers” will be the permanent anti-vaxxers, people who think that vaccines have bad side effects; they believe, for example, that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes autism.
This medical heresy even as hospitals are filling to capacity, their staff are exhausted and bodies are piling up in refrigerated trailers because there is nowhere to put them.
Without near universal vaccination, the coronavirus will be around for years. The superhuman effort to get a vaccine will have been partially in vain. The silver bullet will be tarnished.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. 

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