Right now, at this very moment, roughly half of the eligible population of our community has chosen not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. That’s in spite of clear guidance from medical professionals, scientific researchers, and the government agencies that are in charge of handling public health crises. They all strongly recommend vaccination.
And it’s not that the Manhattan area is full of dummies or contrarians. Our vaccination rate is bad, but it’s not wildly out of line.
The problem is a gradual breakdown of trust in the institutions of society. It is the crisis that underlies many other crises, across the whole country.
It is why a significant percentage of the population was willing to believe that the presidential election last November was stolen, despite clear statements by election officials (from both political parties) and courts across the country that it wasn’t.
It is why substantial numbers of Americans believed that 9/11 was a hoax, or was carried out by the government. Locally, it is why I consistently see letters, e-mails and Facebook posts claiming that this newspaper is in cahoots with...pick your enemy: The Republicans? The Democrats? The city manager? The offensive coordinator? Black Lives Matter? The university president? The Peace and Justice group? Aggieville bar owners?
It is why people jam school board meetings and get in fights with each other over an academic philosophy that school officials say they’re not teaching. It is why people throw a fit over wearing masks in indoor public settings, when health authorities strongly recommend them.
I’m not saying that the people who object to masks, or the people opposed to the teaching of critical race theory, are irrational. I respect many people with those views. I am saying that the institutions of our society have failed often enough that they have lost the trust of the public. All of the institutions. The President. The Pentagon. The Congress. The churches. Television news networks. And so on.
Social media has made things many times worse, because it gives a platform that seems to equate the guidance of experts with the jabbering of any clown with a TikTok account. Politicians contribute, by leveraging this sort of doubt to get elected, by running against Washington, or Topeka, or City Hall.
Truth is, the vast majority of people serving in Washington and Topeka and City Hall — or the school board, or the country commission, for that matter — are doing so with good motives. And the administrators they employ are generally tremendous professionals working very hard for the betterment of the community. And yet, because of the accumulation of failures, and the amplification by social media, we’ve reached a crisis.
Vaccination is the starkest case, the one involving illness and death, that makes obvious what we’re facing. Just to be clear, there are vaccines scientifically proven to be extremely effective, and overwhelmingly safe — and there’s a virus that has, to state it most conservatively, been connected to the deaths of 670,000 Americans. That includes 148 in the three-county Manhattan area. And yet half of the population has chosen to dramatically worsen their own odds, and to thereby also endanger their neighbors, largely because they don’t trust the long list of authorities telling them precisely what they need to do.
It’s not a lack of information. It’s a lack of trust.