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OPINION

Vaccine hesitancy, or obstinacy?

When it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, the conflict between individual liberty and societal responsibility runs deep.

People receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the UMass Memorial Health Care COVID-19 Vaccination Center in the Mercantile Center in Worcester on April 22.
People receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the UMass Memorial Health Care COVID-19 Vaccination Center in the Mercantile Center in Worcester on April 22.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Massachusetts vaulted over another milestone this week, closing in early on its goal of getting 4.1 million people vaccinated against COVID-19 by July. Most of New England is stepping up, with some of the highest vaccination rates in the country. But even here, demand for the shots has softened, and state health officials are worried that without a significant uptick, the dream of herd immunity from the deadly virus may be forever out of reach.

After the initial rush, the work of vaccinating the public is getting slower and harder. Helpfully, most of the state’s universities, including the public UMass system, are requiring that students be vaccinated as a condition of living or studying on campus this fall. And many private companies expect to require employees to be vaccinated if they return to in-office work. But Massachusetts won’t be mandating vaccines for its executive branch employees. That’s thousands of workers — including prison guards, state troopers, social workers, and more who have close encounters with the public — who won’t be required to protect themselves and others.

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Why not, Governor Baker?

“Still a free country, last time I checked,” was Baker’s rather testy reply to reporters last week.

And so we return to the familiar tension between personal freedom and public safety that underlies so much of the American divide. Whether it’s seat belts, motorcycle helmets, gun laws, or restrictions to protect the environment, the conflict between individual liberty and societal responsibility runs deep in the national character.

All things being equal, Baker’s libertarian leanings would be in tune with a majority of Americans who prefer keeping the government out of their personal lives. Asked again about his opposition to a mandate on Monday, he explained that some people have “very legitimate reasons to be nervous about a government-run program that’s going to put a shot in their arm.”

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But there’s a deadly public health crisis on. Indeed, since the pandemic hit, disdain for government “nanny state-ism” has largely evaporated. Most Americans now favor a robust government response to the economic dislocations the pandemic created, and large majorities approve of the federal government’s current role in providing vaccines.

Contrast Baker’s hands-off policy with that of Attorney General Maura Healey, who this week repeated her call for public employees to be vaccinated as a condition of their jobs. After allowing for the usual religious or health exemptions, Healey even suggested that employees who come into close contact with the public but won’t get vaccinated should look for “another line of work.” (Healey stressed that she was not stating a legal opinion but a personal view of “what’s fair and what’s right.”)

Baker and Healey are potential rivals in next year’s gubernatorial election, and they represent broadly different approaches to government, with Healey supporting a more activist role. Is it a coincidence that Healey is a Democrat and a woman, and Baker is a Republican and male? Probably not, since gender gaps are consistent on a range of issues, from gun control to social welfare programs to climate change, with women tending to value community and security over free choice (a notable exception is abortion, where the gender gap is negligible).

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A complicating factor is the current status of the three major COVID-19 vaccines, which the Food and Drug Administration has approved under “emergency use authorization” only. Although the drugs approved during this rare accelerated process still undergo strict FDA testing for safety, effectiveness, and quality, most experts say their legal status is cloudy. One lawsuit already has been filed by a prison guard in New Mexico, who claims mandates are unconstitutional for vaccines without full FDA approval.

To be sure, more hectoring from government could backfire with vaccine skeptics, especially since they already tend to distrust authority, whether in the form of big government or Big Pharma. Young people in particular may believe themselves invulnerable (though they have been increasingly susceptible to new variants), or have already survived a bout of COVID-19. The strategy there is to appeal to their sense of responsibility for others, like grandma.

No one is completely independent, and no rights are absolute. Freedom doesn’t amount to much if you’re not safe to mingle with others or breathe the air. And security isn’t worth a lot if it means authoritarian crackdowns on movement or expression. Far from being competing values, freedom and safety are complementary: You can’t have one without the other. And we won’t have either until a critical mass of Americans roll up their sleeves for the vaccine.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.