Vaccines for Covid have become the new whipping boy in American politics.

The political right hasn’t been able to get much traction attacking President Joe Biden, whose dull personality doesn’t generate much heat. You can’t attack someone who is bland and boring.

Failing that, a segment of the right has now latched onto attacking specific policies, with Covid vaccine mandates being a major focus.

It’s not a hard sale. Two decades of anti-vaxx propaganda has prepared fertile ground for this moment. Disinformation on social media has done even more damage, causing a lot of people to avoid getting the Covid vaccine for reasons that are spurious.

Less than 1/3 of area citizens are vaccinated despite the vaccine being widely available and the age limit lowered. In Banks County, only 19% of the public is vaccinated, the lowest rate in northeast Georgia.

Why so low?

•••

I’ve always wondered how anti-vaxxers got ramped up with their cause. What caused them to become anti-vaxxers?

I remember getting the polio vaccine when I was a kid; it was an exciting moment.

Previously, polio had ruined the lives of thousands, especially children. Polio was especially bad in the 1940s and 1950s in the U.S., the years just before I was born.

But thanks to vaccinations, polio had been eliminated in the U.S. by 1979 and, today, is almost eradicated from around the world.

Dozens of other vaccines have also been developed over the last century that have saved millions of lives.

So what is it with the anti-vaxxers who spread their misleading propaganda? What is their end-game in all of that? Why do they care if other people get vaccinated?

•••

Until recently, the anti-vaxx movement had been small and on the fringes of social importance. But two things happened.

First, the rise of social media as a way to spread fake information gave the anti-vaxx movement a platform from which to brainwash millions of people. You often hear anti-vaxxers say they have “done research” and they claim to be super-duper informed.

No, they’ve just been manipulated by social media nonsense.

The second impact was the rise of Trumpism as a social/political movement. One plank of Trumpism seeks to dismiss “experts” in favor of gut reactions and personal “feelings.” That attack on medical experts delayed the U.S. response to the Covid pandemic by weeks as neophyte pinheads claimed the virus would go away on its own.

Together, all of that has moved the anti-vaxx movement from the fringe to the mainstream. People who should know better have gotten caught up in it. Suddenly, we have a lot of people who think they know more than doctors and over 100 years of medical research.

I’m waiting on these people to begin doing their own heart surgeries since they know so much more than their doctors.

•••

All of that has expanded the reach of anti-vaxx ideology, but the development of the Covid vaccine has thrown fuel on the anti-vaxx fire.

A lot of people refuse to get the Covid vaccine because of misinformation and propaganda being spread on social media. And now, some Republicans have adopted anti-vaxx sentiment as a wedge issue for upcoming elections. They’ve done that by extolling the idea that vaccinations are a “personal choice” and not a public health issue.

Gov. Brian Kemp has gotten caught up in that ideology when he signed an executive order to forbid state agencies from requiring Covid vaccinations or vaccine “passports.”

Kemp took that stand as a way to appeal to the right-wing Republican base, a group he had earlier alienated when he refused to throw out Georgia’s 2020 election results and give the state to Trump. Kemp faces a tough 2022 re-election bid and needs his base to turn out and vote for him. Playing on their vaccine fears is one way to appeal to that base.

But Kemp is himself vaccinated and has called on people to get vaccinated.

It may not have been intentional, but Kemp’s comments about his executive order gave a big boost to the broader anti-vaxx movement far beyond the Covid issue.

In comments about his order, Kemp said, “vaccination is a personal decision between each citizen and a medical professional — not state government.”

Really?

So does that mean the state will no longer mandate children have certain vaccines before they enter Georgia’s public schools or colleges? Is the state throwing out its own vaccine mandates just to appeal to the anti-vaxxers?

•••

Truth is, public health isn’t just an individual choice. If I have a disease that could infect others, I have a responsibility for that. Would it be OK for me to carry the deadly Ebola virus and spread it around just because it’s my choice to do so?

Likewise, is it OK for people to stop getting the vaccine for whooping cough just because they want to? (I’ve had whooping cough — I’d cough so hard I’d pass out and wake up laying in the floor. It’s an ugly disease and sometimes deadly to children.)

Our health affects others. Vaccinations are not just a personal choice, they’re a blend of personal and public responsibility.

There may be some people who can’t take vaccinations because of specific medical conditions, but the majority of people are able to safely take vaccines — and we all have a responsibility to do so.

•••

Conservatives have long been leery of government overreach. For most conservatives, less government is better.

But there’s a difference between advocating for less government and advocating for an anti-government ideology.

The anti-vaxx ideology is, at its core, an anti-government ideology. It undermines faith in medical expertise and in broad public health concerns.

There’s a balance in all of this. But none of us are medical professionals. When we substitute our views for the views of medical professionals, we’re risking not just our personal health, but also the health of the larger community.

Kemp’s executive order by itself may not have been too bad, but his anti-vaxx comments undermined his own state health officials.

Vaccinations aren’t just personal choices, they’re part of the health of the large community.

None of us live on an island, isolated from the larger world. To act as if we do isn’t responsible. It’s reckless.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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