Scapegoating the unvaccinated
The misinformation campaign of the vaccinated reaches mainstream outlets.
For many of us who lost our jobs, livelihoods, or businesses over being unvaccinated, we are all too aware of the prejudices and widespread social gatekeeping that went on for a good portion of the pandemic.
It was an obvious demonization that was justified by those in power, even when it was quite obvious that the vaccines were not the saving grace that they were alleged to be.
That being said, there’s been a rather large gap of ignorance among mainstream outlets, many of which seem to focus more on circumventing the serious issues in vaccine passports over a “vaccine passports, please” worldview.
So it’s a bit of a surprise to note a website pointing to a study pointing out many of the hypocrisies brought forth by vaccine zealots.
I don’t provide much credit towards PsyPost, or really any outlet as they are likely to publish articles on the basis of getting clicks. The article itself creates a framework in favor of the vaccines, although it quickly raises criticisms about the stigmatization and demonization that went on for those of us who chose not to get vaccinated, and more importantly how many of us were used as scapegoats (possibly as a means to blame us for the high hospitalization rates and ongoing pandemic):
However, this emphasis on vaccination has also given rise to a complex social phenomenon – the stigmatization and prejudice faced by those who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics aimed to investigate whether the negative sentiments directed towards the unvaccinated can be considered a form of scapegoating.
A quote provided by the study author interestingly points out the blatant hypocrisy in many of the studies and psychology/sociology studies that came out during the pandemic which tended to examine conspiracy theorists and those who are vaccine hesitant as sources of misinformation, rather than examining possible misinformation touted by vaccinees:
“My colleagues and I have been studying the social divisions surrounding COVID-19 for some time. We have noticed that much of the existing research at that time focused on conflicts originating from people who discount COVID-19, believe in conspiracy theories, and generally undervalue the threat of the virus. We replicated many of those patterns in our own research as well,” said study author Maja Graso, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen.
“However, what we found to be missing was an address to misinformation and the consequences stemming from overestimating the threat. Consider, for instance, how in 2020, more than 30% of Americans believed that a COVID infection led to a 50% chance of hospitalization; it never did, nor was there ever evidence to suggest it might. Left-leaning individuals tended to over-estimate COVID harms to a greater degree than conservatives.”
This is a serious problem that never seems to have been addressed, especially due to the fact that misinformation over the sterilizing and protective nature of the vaccines led to social validation to stigmatize and push out those of us who chose not to get the vaccines. It was a social phenomenon justified by public acceptance of lies rather than actual scientific evidence.
Keep in mind that the there were vocal comments to blame us unvaccinated for surges in cases stemming all the way back from mid-2021:
Even though the article starts out praising the vaccines, it quickly criticizes much of the accepted hypocrisy regarding misinformation surrounding the vaccines, including the fact that many otherwise healthy people are not likely to be hospitalized for severe COVID, the fact that vaccines are not sterilizing and therefore both vaccinated and unvaccinated can transmit the virus, as well as the fact that natural immunity has been mostly ignored by the public as well as those within the medical profession.
Here’s an example of one of these blatant hypocrisies:
Of course, self-protection is not the only benefit of vaccines. Even if the vaccinated person is not at high risk of getting seriously ill, they may reduce their chances of passing the virus on to somebody who is.27 This rationale has been a common moral justification for mandating vaccination in general.28 Yet, as early as mid-2021, it was known that C19-vaccinated individuals could acquire an infection and transmit the virus to others.29–32 At the height of their infection, both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals have similar viral loads,32 though vaccination may expedite the clearance of the virus.30 The effectiveness of the primary vaccination series as well as boosters decreases over time.33 34 Subsequent variants of concern in 2021, notably Delta and Omicron, also reduced aspects of vaccine benefits.27 Moreover, there has been ambiguity about the benefits versus risks of C19 vaccination for low-risk groups,35 especially children and young people under 30 years old.36
The study was separated into two vignette-based studies, in which people were provided a scenario and asked to provide answers to their perception of the scenario.
The researchers’ proposed hypothesis involved believing that those surveyed are more likely to blame the vaccinated as scapegoats, even when the evidence did not warrant blaming them for the ongoing pandemic:
First, we expected that people would be more likely to scapegoat an unvaccinated (than a vaccinated, or unvaccinated-recovered individual). We expected this effect to emerge regardless of proportionate risk considerations that would suggest that scapegoating of the unvaccinated individual is unwarranted (ie, age, comorbidities, timing and history of vaccination or prior infection). Second, we examined whether liberals would be more likely to scapegoat the unvaccinated (relative to the vaccinated) individual than conservatives.
The first study involved a made-up profile of 4 individuals: 2 young adults with a less than 1% risk of hospitalization and death, as well as 2 older, more higher risk individuals. The profiles included a description of either vaccinated (3-doses), unvaccinated, and unvaccinated but recovered prior to vaccine rollout. Patients were asked to rate the culpability of these profiles from a scale of 1-6 based upon the following questions:
Specifically, we asked participants to indicate on a scale from 1=not at all to 6=very much the extent to which the character is: (1) to be blamed for the effects of hospital staff shortages, (2) at fault for C19 deaths and hospitalisation and (3) guilty of severely jeopardising his/her community’s public health. We also asked participants to estimate the likelihood that the character will: (1) be hospitalised for severe illness, (2) die and (3) not recover.
In short, across all profiles those who were described as either unvaccinated or unvaccinated and recovered were rated higher regarding their culpability:
The data here is rather alarming, as not only did participants suggest that someone fully recovered from COVID will likely be at high risk of hospitalization and death (as if they didn’t have it before…), but also that all of the proposed risk percentages fell far above the actual statistics, suggesting that there’s an overall over assumption of COVID risks among included participants.
When stratified based upon political preferences, the study noted a wide discrepancy, with Trump voters rating the scenarios lower in culpability for the individuals in contrast to Biden voters. Keep in mind that party affiliation is assumed based on who participants voted for, and certainly don’t provide an accurate comparison of results with respect to actual party:
Again, be mindful that party affiliation shouldn’t readily be assumed for this scenario given that Trump voters may not necessarily be conservatives and vice versa.
In contrast to the first study, the second study provided a scenario of a low-risk, relatively healthy male who spends all day working outdoors and spending time by himself, with the only difference in the scenario being the individual either being unvaccinated and having gotten COVID with no issues and fully recovering (labeled U-R), or of the individual getting 2-doses of the vaccine but not being up-to-date with a booster (this survey took place early 2022; labeled Vax):
In our second study (February 2022), we asked 193 participants from MTurk (Mage=39.19, SD=12.44, 47.4% men) to evaluate a 28-year-old, low-risk male character who is ‘in general, fit, healthy, and enjoys spending as much time outdoors as he can. He spends most of his work time outside by himself’. Participants were randomly assigned to a condition in which the character has either:
1.‘contracted COVID-19 in May of 2021 (around the time when he was eligible to receive his vaccine). He did not seek medical attention, and he recovered fully’, or
2.‘received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in May of 2021 when he was eligible to get it (he does not plan on getting a booster)’
The author’s assumption in this scenario may be slightly unfounded, as both scenarios were constructed to likely receive a similar degree of culpability and scapegoating. So natural immunity and being outdated may not be easily comparable as suggested.
Nonetheless, when participants were asked to score these scenarios based on the criteria from the first study participants still rated the man from the U-R scenario as being more culpable:
It’s rather ironic that this individual scored so highly for the U-R vignette even though it was outlined that this person did not require hospitalization and fully recovered.
It’s curious why, even when presented with this fact, that participants still rated this individual as being at high risk of hospitalization and death when the vignette itself said that his prior infection led to not needing hospitalization and fully recovering. It’s almost as if participants disregarded prior bouts of COVID as providing any prediction of future infections.
Note, again, that even though these scenarios were scored/rated lower relative to the individuals in the prior study, they still appear to be over estimations of actual risk.
Overall, the study notes that, at least among participants, overall evaluations of COVID risks were grossly exaggerated, and more importantly people were more likely to find those who were unvaccinated to be culpable for prolonging the pandemic and causing many of the hospital shortages.
This is what makes the blaming of unvaccinated scapegoating, as the researchers note that scapegoating requires utilizing unfounded and unscientific evidence to blame others:
Recall that what makes blame assignment a form of scapegoating (vs a justified response to a social threat) is that it is driven by fear or based on unfounded or inaccurate facts.10 11 13 63 64 We provide evidence that the scapegoating of the unvaccinated was not grounded in available empirical facts, but a miscalibration of risk. Our evidence for this is that while participants recognised that the elderly and people with severe comorbidities were at higher risk of hospitalisations or deaths (vs low-risk characters), they consistently overestimated the risks of C19, especially for the unvaccinated people who are not in a known high-risk group. These inaccurate risk estimates comport with results from representative sample-based studies available at the time.17 18 55 The final contributing factor to misperceptions, and another indication of scapegoating, was the failure to consider the protective effects of prior infection, which were known according to the evidence available at the time of our data collection.40 43
Put another way, if you were to blame a group of people you’d better make sure you are relying on accurate evidence, and it’s rather apparent that a lot of misinformation regarding actual hospital rates and death associated with COVID was unfounded.
I’ll leave the implications portion for readers to read for themselves. Again, this study doesn’t tell us anything that we otherwise are already aware of or have experienced for ourselves.
It at least points out that misinformation can come from all sources. It’s rather arrogant to assume that people who you agree with will always be aboveboard in what they provide to you.
I can probably expound upon this some more, but I believe Maja Graso summarizes it rather well in the PsyPost article:
“It conveys a classic, timeless message: people should be aware that good intentions can run awry,” Graso said. “We encourage everyone to consider that misinformation can come in many forms and from many sources. Just as undervaluing the threat can be damaging to public health, lives, and resources, vastly overestimating the COVID-19 threat can also create pressures that lead to poor policy decisions, diversion of resources, and unwarranted blame of individuals who may not be at fault.” […]
“Our own ‘political tribe’ can also be a source of misinformation, yet we may be less adept at recognizing it,” the researcher added.
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Graso M, Aquino K, Chen FX, et al
Blaming the unvaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic: the roles of political ideology and risk perceptions in the USA
Journal of Medical Ethics Published Online First: 09 June 2023. doi: 10.1136/jme-2022-108825