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Healing the sick: the vaccine and problems of trust

<h6>The entrance to McCosh Health Center.</h6>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The entrance to McCosh Health Center.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Like many of my fellow Tigers, I have been weighing taking a leave of absence against doing Princeton online. One of the biggest factors in my decision has been whether a vaccine will emerge. Until recently I was hopeful. Now, I am less sure. 

After doggedly researching the prospects of a vaccine, it has become apparent that one will not be available in the coming year. The BBC has recently created a walkthrough on the making of a vaccine. Their estimate is that we will have a vaccine for Sars-CoV-2 by “mid 2021.” Of course, that vaccine may not even work, let alone be released, by then. 

Still, if we do not prepare for the moment when the vaccine arrives, we will not be able to reach any stage of normalcy. To thrive, our sick democracy needs its own booster shot. This means developing trust in our institutions and helping educate others about why we should have faith in a vaccine.

There is an understandable hesitation around the vaccine itself. The United States bears complicity for the Tuskegee experiment, in which the government lied to African American study participants, while denying them life-saving syphilis treatment. Others recall the 1976 Swine Flu vaccine, in which the government, with increasingly apparent political motivation, gave millions of Americans a vaccine that was not ready to be released. 

Many leading scientists, too, have expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine. Paul Offit, the doctor who directs the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has cited concern about receiving the vaccine without proper data to prove its efficacy. Although he believes the government has taken the right steps in funding vaccine development, he worries that the current administration will release the vaccine before it has completed phase III trials, which are the most critical tests for drugs.

And hesitation is too light of a word to represent the 50 percent of Americans who are unwilling to receive a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. This number is rooted not just in concern over vaccine data, but in a deep mistrust of institutions as a whole.

Americans do not trust the government, the media, or even polling itself. Distrust in these institutions has led to distrust in others and the transformation of facts into opinions. The debate around hydroxychloroquine, which has been proved ineffective against SARS-CoV-2, is a prime example. Facts themselves have become distorted in order to promote agendas, leading to continued calls for context around any new issue. A vaccine has already become the newly debated issue.

Growing nationalism across the world will be as dangerous as distorted facts when a vaccine is produced. On a global scale, the “me first” attitude has pruned any hope of vaccine multiculturalism; countries will likely bully drug companies to secure supplies for themselves. Vaccine hoarding, a woefully unprepared supply chain, and global demand will make the vaccine’s distribution Kafkaesque. 

These are the institutions that need the biggest dose of medicine if the vaccine is to be successful. How can we give it to them?

First, we should wonder how this all relates to the Princeton community. Will Princeton require all students to receive a vaccine against COVID-19? That, too, is unclear. According to University Health Services (UHS), it is too early for the University to know whether a vaccine would be mandatory or not. If it was not made mandatory by New Jersey, UHS would take guidance from the state and conduct its own thorough research into the policy. 

We do know that the University requires some immunizations that are mandated by the state of New Jersey. Only in extraordinary circumstances are students exempted from certain vaccines. 

New Jersey’s state legislature recently tried to pass a bill that would end exemption from vaccinations on religious grounds, but the legislation failed amid criticism from vaccine skeptics. COVID-19 could revive that bill and make it into law. Though the bill’s chances still seem unfavorable, the New Jersey legislature could very well make the vaccine mandatory.

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So, what can Princeton students do? The simple answer is, if we can do so safely and based on proper data, to get vaccinated. The obvious reason for this is to protect our community, especially the most vulnerable, whom Lillian Chen brilliantly called on us to protect. If all of us are immunized, those who cannot safely receive the vaccine will be protected by the community. To build trust in our institutions, we first must have it, even in the most minute degree.

If we, as Princeton students and as representatives of our countries (I would remind you here that distrust in government is not a uniquely American problem), want to be in the service of humanity, then we should be in the service of humanity. Our role, then, should be to spread proper information about the vaccine and work to rebuild trust in our institutions, both national and global. Two big tasks, I know. My solutions to them will not be perfect, but they are certainly a start.

To educate ourselves and others, we should spread knowledge about vaccine progress and vaccine data, like Students vs. Pandemics is doing. We should also help others understand why we should only be concerned about the speed of a vaccine if it is released before a completed phase III trial, which will be just as rigorous for the SARS-CoV-2 as it has been for all drugs.

To build trust, we need a dose of humility. Hubris and anger are rhetorical stances that polarize and divide. The use of toxic cures for COVID-19, conspiracies intended to stoke vaccine skepticism, and belligerent instead of productive attitudes towards institutions make matters worse. To rebuild respect for expertise and discussion, one step is changing our posture of discussion. The next is using our own political power, through voting and activism, in the way philosopher Hannah Arendt would laud, in order to make our institutions trustworthy.

We should also remember that a vaccine itself is not an end all be all, but one tool that needs others in order to be successful. Trust, widespread scientific literacy, and yes, social distancing will all help us to survive the pandemic.

With these pills, our democracy can recover better than it was before. The question only remains if they are too big to swallow.

Ethan Magistro is a sophomore from Morristown, N.J. He can be reached at magistro@princeton.edu.

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