The Vaccine Blog

Is not getting the COVID 19 Vaccine a Selfish decision?

You, Me & Vaccines Post 16; Is not getting the COVID 19 Vaccine a Selfish decision?


  • Introduction


Many people feel that antivaccine or vaccine hesitant views are completely self-serving. That they simply want the benefits of being part of society without doing their part to protect others ie. vaccinate. They shouldn't be allowed to visit restaurants, clubs, cinemas, and furthermore, should be penalized for this. That has caused outrage in groups opposed to vaccinations. Now, accusations of selfishness are always emotionally charged, regardless of what the issue is. However, in this case they were related to a highly publicized issue ie. vaccines.  Both of these factors amplify the emotion. 


It is unsurprising, then, that this has sparked a whole plethora of heated debates online. This allows emotions to spread faster and further than ever before.  Groups opposed to vaccination have also been accused by journalists as being “stupid” and ignorant. Not much upsets people more than their intellect being insulted. This therefore drives emotions even more. 


1.1 Why the way we talk about vaccines is all wrong, and why that needs to change

The emotion is of course understandable. People's lives are at risk here. Children's lives, loved ones`s lives etc. Difficult as this is to say, it doesn't lead to productive discussion.``Selfish” is an arbitrary term. People define selfishness differently.Because of that, it's easy to rouse emotions and get attention by simply throwing the term around. 

  1. Stop using the word “selfish” 


Why not, though? Why shouldn't we just assume everyone who questions vaccines is a selfish four-letter-word, and give it no further thought?Selfish just doesn't describe the majority of people who ask questions about vaccines. The media only gives airtime to the extremists; and thus that small sample is assumed to represent the whole population of people who question vaccines. 


So “selfish” just isn't nuanced enough for this discussion. Why? Most people have an opinion on vaccination, be it in support of or opposed to COVID 19 vaccines. There are way too many variables between people to generalize this much. .  


Now, I am completely pro-vaccine.  I support vaccines, mandates, and all public health measures. I even got a degree in Microbiology from one of the top colleges in the world. I`m working on publishing a paper on the HPV vaccine. (That was actually how I got interested in vaccines and vaccine hesitancy). I`m involved in other research around vaccine hesitancy in Nigeria. During this, I of course came across anti vaccine sites. Like you, I was guilty of categorizing all of them as selfish and scientifically illiterate. However, then I read more into it, and  I realized it's far, far broader than a scientific issue. 


It's too much of a generalization to automatically label such a large population of people as “selfish”. No group of people is a monolith ie. exactly the same. It's too big a group to make such broad generalizations about There are clearly other factors at play here. 

  1. Why selfish is too broad a term to us


Let's say an individual didn`t take the COVID 19 vaccine. Does one selfish decision make a selfish person? No, and vice versa. A selfLESS decision doesn`t necessarily make a selfless person. One mistake I hear people making is making assumptions about people based on this one decision they make. Yes, it's an important decision. It CAN tell you about a person, but one decision isn't enough to make assumptions about a person as a whole. You need more data points. Someone can be vaccinated and at the same time commit horrific crimes. On the other hand, someone can be unvaccinated and be kind, warm, donate to charity etc. 


3.1 Personal autonomy

After listening to responses online from many those who opposed vaccination, I thought about it a lot. First, this is justifiable, personal autonomy is a core principle of medicine. We do have the right to freedom over our bodies. However, responsibility is attached to every right we have. You have the right to use the road, for example. You do not, however, have the right to drive dangerously, exceed speed limits etc. You have the right to visit shops. You do not have the right to steal from the shop, nor threaten/harass others. You may smoke. However, not around other people because it harms their health. This all circles back to lacking consideration for other people, the core element of selfishness. 

Now, people have said to me that these examples don't apply, because the component of bodily autonomy doesn`t apply. I would say two things in response: One, if you crash into someone on the road, or harm someone when committing a robbery, you are absolutely violating bodily autonomy. Second, that's not the point. The point is that this is part of a broader narrative about freedom. Many have a feeling of being controlled by scientific, governmental, and medical institutions etc. 


Linked to this is the point that some feel that they shouldn't have to prove a medical status in order to live their lives. They feel restricted. This point was particularly true in heated debates online.. Arguments are made for people not feeling that they had the freedom to live their lives as before the pandemic. Some didn't want to have to prove that they were vaccinated to do so. 


There were particular undertones of racial segregation to the statements being made. My counter to this would be that being segregated according to race or gender came with no choice. It was entirely imposed. However, in the case of vaccine mandates and passports, there is a simple choice. Even calling others selfish implies that they have this choice to put their own interests above others. Again, with racial segregation, no such choice was there. 


  1. We need better communication around the topic


What`s clear here is that labeling people as “selfish” is unlikely to make them open to new information. It's confrontational. It's accusatory. People don't enjoy that. These statements make one thing clear; it isn't about the vaccines themselves. It's a communication issue. Most difficult topics are: We need patient, educational communication from trusted people. That leads me to my first key point in how to address this.

4.1. Create a community, and tell stories


People listen to people they can relate to. Those that have experienced the same things as them. People are more comfortable discussing sensitive issues when they feel part of a community. For instance, I was talking to  my hairdresser a few weeks ago. She told me a story  of a patient with Long COVID, who couldn`t do any activity for more than an hour before needing to sit down. Sometimes things you read online hit far too close to home. I've thought about that a lot since; and it really made me think about how long COVID makes even small tasks (ie. shopping, visiting friends etc.) difficult to almost impossible. This is someone's life here. Someone who may lose months, years, or even a lifetime of freedom. So it's obvious that this really had an impact on me. The main reason for this was that these people are part of the local community where I live. So it's easy for me to talk to and relate to them. Especially when it came to such a difficult topic. 


And this idea can be applied broadly in vaccine discussion.  Calling others ``selfish” leads to an “us vs them'' dynamic. This almost always leads to divisiveness. Which doesn't solve any problems. Having a sense of community in these discussions makes it less likely that these accusatory words like “selfish” will be thrown around. This is because people will have an understanding of what others have gone through. That makes open discussion much easier. Even if you`re not part of the community, you can still try to integrate yourself into it. How? By understanding their experiences, or trying to. This in turn is based on trying to understand how your opponents formulate their thoughts. That's the basis of my next point,


4.2. Try to argue from their side

One of the most effective ways to do this is to try to argue from their side. You`ll be able to articulate exactly what they worry about. Also,  if you`re particularly empathetic, feel the emotions they do when talking about such sensitive issues. This will in turn give insight into what motivates them to make the arguments they do. That reveals what information is most important to them. Finally, what the most effective way to discuss with them is. Which arguments will have the most impact on them. 


You can also use this to analyze how strong your own arguments are. If your arguments stand scrutiny from their side, then you can be confident that your own argument is solid. If, on the other hand, they do not, you need to re-examine your own arguments. This exercise will also tell you about the quality of your discussions overall, and how they can be improved. This will lead to faster progress on your own, as well as others` ability to have effective discussions. 


4.3 Use a different argument. “Selfish” is an ad hominem fallacy 


In philosophy, an “ad hominem” fallacy is one where a personal attack is used instead of an actual reason why their argument is not valid. For instance, labeling someone stupid, insulting their race, gender, ethnicity etc. It is a rebuttal based on the perceived failings of the person rather than on the merits of their argument. “Selfish” definitely falls into this category. Because of this, calling someone “selfish” doesn't actually move any discussion forward. It only distracts from the point at hand, and also creates more division. For that reason, breaking down what “selfish” actually means, and constructing a good argument based on that might be a better approach. How might not vaccinating be inconsistent with other values they have, for example. How might it be inconsistent with other arguments they`ve made? These are both better avenues for discussion.  So ask yourself; really, what will you achieve by using this word? Will it lead to better conversations? In the majority of cases, I`d say a huge no. 


4.4 Will using words like “selfish” actually help your case?


On this, I'd also say to think about what you actually want to achieve before you even start having discussions. Is calling others ``selfish” really going to help your case? Or, will it simply inflame emotions without actually achieving anything?


Intention is important here. It's important to construct arguments with an intention in mind. If you make arguments with the intention of dividing people, the issue you came to solve is only going to get worse than it was initially. So using words like “selfish”, or even basing arguments around calling someone/a group selfish all apply here. Words matter. Calling someone selfish can turn them against you for a long time. Or, even for a lifetime. It's important to think carefully before using any kind of inflammatory words.


This is important. Thinking, broadly, about where you would like your discussion to go can help it be more efficient. It can also structure it more. That leaves less room for conversations to go off-track; and so, less likely that emotions will take over. This is usually where words like “selfish” start being thrown around. These ideas are especially true in the case of emotionally charged topics like vaccines. Even more so when issues about children (ie. childhood vaccines) enter the discussion. 


  1. Conclusion


I think what's really clear is that this is a communication issue. Any difficult topic is actually the result of difficulty communicating. From that, communication is really what needs to be worked on here. Not just communication between the public and health authorities, but communication with each other around difficult topics broadly. It's called PUBLIC health for a reason. That means EVERYONE. Everyone needs to work together for any public health intervention to work. Using words like “selfish” only divides people more. Let's look at what we have in common. We all want health and happiness. Both for ourselves and loved ones.  It doesn't matter where you're from or what your views on vaccines are. That's the common goal, and we`ll never reach a common goal by dividing people.  Thanks for reading


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