The United States is a “divided nation,” we have heard for many years. Red State vs. Blue State, conservative vs. liberal, Donald Trump devotees vs. basically everybody else. Rumbling fears of a future civil war have risen, due in large part to the violent, well-armed groups that have rallied to Trump’s tattered banner, the sacking of the Capitol Building by those groups six months ago to the day, and to police forces that seem to sympathize with them even as murderers like Kyle Rittenhouse shoot peaceful protesters down in the street.
If matters continue as they are, however, a bright new line will be drawn between “Two Americas”: The Vaccinated vs. the Unvaccinated. Of course, these groupings don’t fall entirely along ideological lines. Millions of people remain unvaccinated for reasons that have nothing to do with the politics of the last president. Some people with precarious employment, undocumented immigrants and other marginalized groups face daunting barriers to receiving the shot even if they want it, and others (including some Black unvaccinated people) are legitimately wary after centuries of abuse at the hands of the medical industry. Children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.
For millions of others, however, the issue of vaccination comes down to straight politics. A solid majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, and it is no quirk of statistics that most of the states with the lowest rates of vaccination are also the states that were carried by Trump in the election.
COVID has become part of the so-called culture war in the U.S., and refusing the vaccine amounts to an oath of fealty to the former president they incorrectly believe was robbed. The absurdity of this practically bends the light — COVID damn near killed Trump on the eve of the 2020 election, and both he and his wife were vaccinated the following January — yet it remains a dominant force not only in the politics of the nation, but its health as well.
President Biden’s plan to vaccinate 70 percent of the country by July 4 fell short, and a national effort is underway to reach those who have not yet gotten the shot. With the rise of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19, the need for this is deeply pressing.
Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” leading COVID expert Anthony Fauci revealed that “about 99.2 percent” of current COVID-related deaths are taking place among the unvaccinated. “The overwhelming proportion of people who get into trouble are the unvaccinated,” said Fauci. “Which is the reason why we say this is really entirely avoidable and preventable.”
“COVID-19 cases are rising sharply in several states with low vaccine coverage, fueled by the spread of the coronavirus’s more transmissible Delta variant,” reports Sarah Zhang for The Atlantic. “In southwest Missouri, understaffed hospitals are already having to send COVID-19 patients hundreds of miles away. The same July 4 party that is very safe in Massachusetts is riskier in Missouri, where much more virus is circulating (15 new cases per 100,000 people a day) and many fewer adults are at least partially vaccinated (56 percent).”
Indeed, Missouri has fast become a case study in how low vaccination levels can quickly spiral into another health catastrophe. For the first time since March, COVID hospitalizations in that state have gone over 900 a day for four straight days. Hospitals are again beginning to run out of life-preserving ventilators.
Speaking directly to conservatives who refuse to participate in the vaccination process, West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice minced no words when he appeared on Sunday’s edition of “This Week” on ABC.
“They really are in a lottery with themselves,” said Justice. “You know, we have a lottery that basically says, if you’re vaccinated we’re going to give you stuff. Red states probably have a lot of people that, you know, are very, very conservative in their thinking and they think, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that,’ but they’re not thinking right. I hate to say this, but what would put them over the edge is an awful lot of people dying. The only way that’s going to happen is a catastrophe that none of us want. And so we just got to keep trying.”
This divide not only threatens the U.S. It was deeply disquieting to learn that Great Britain, under the leadership of Trump clone Boris Johnson, is preparing to lift virtually all COVID safety strictures and leave the British people wide open to the caprices of the virus. “Learn to live with it” is the new catchphrase coming out of 10 Downing Street — which is, you may recall, exactly the tack Trump wanted to take from the beginning no matter the loss in lives — and it is a move fraught with peril.
“Johnson foresaw all nightclubs, museums, concert halls, theaters and sports arenas to be allowed to operate without capacity limits or distancing measures,” reports The Washington Post. “After the reopening, the government will no longer press people to work from home if they can…. If you want to crowd into a packed bar in Soho and fight the scrum for a pint at the counter, the government says it is up to you to decide whether to mask. Though some buses, subways and taxis may ask riders to wear face coverings, the government said it would not legally enforce the measures. One newspaper called it ‘the big bang’ of reopenings.”
This is far from the first time Johnson has lifted safety mandates, only to have COVID come barnstorming back in. The Delta variant is now the predominant strain of COVID in the U.K., and that country is already witnessing what could be called a third wave of infections: 25,000 new cases a day, with England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warning that the number could balloon to 50,000 a day within two weeks.
The U.S. witnessed a similar scenario last summer, when warmer weather, pandemic exhaustion and the demands of capitalism inspired several states to throw caution to the wind and reopen virtually everything. The end result of this was a fall and winter marred by horrific infection rates, the worst of any time during the crisis, and that was before the Delta variant emerged.
Susan Michie, a psychologist and researcher at University College London and a member of the Johnson government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers, said of the “learn to live with the virus” concept, “Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate.”
“Rates of infection are continuing to increase,” said Bobby Morton of Unite, one of the country’s largest unions, “and not only does mask wearing reduce transmissions, it helps provide reassurance to drivers and to passengers who are nervous about using public transport. The idea of personal responsibility and hoping that people will wear masks is absolutely ridiculous, members are already reporting there is an increase in passengers ignoring the rules on mask wearing.”
Sounds all too familiar.
The endgame to this unfolding scenario, both here and in the U.K., appears to be a desperate one. In the fullness of time, some of those who have refused vaccinations may witness their communities being so thoroughly pummeled by the virus that they may finally acquiesce to getting the shot. By then, the death toll will have increased again, and in the meantime COVID will keep receiving its most coveted gift: a laboratory of humanity to grow new variants, one of which may penetrate our vaccination shield and render the last 16 months of misery moot.
“We have to assume that’s going to happen,” says Ravindra Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge. “The more infections are permitted, the more probable immune escape becomes.”