COVID Vaccinations are yet another Tribal Marker

CNN has reported that some people in Missouri are getting vaccinated in secret to avoid backlash from loved ones.

And thus, Covid has offered up yet another way to demonstrate tribal loyalty. First it was face masks; now it’s vaccinations.

Vaccine hesitancy has a range of underlying causes, from fears about side effects, to distrust in government, to skepticism over the risks.  I have relatives who believe Covid-19 is a plot hatched either by the government or by Bill Gates to control people and reap profits.

Whatever the cause, American society is bifurcating into two groups, the vaccinated and the voluntarily unvaccinated.  In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58% of Republicans said they do not intend to get vaccinated (or at least that is what they are telling pollsters), compared to 6% of Democrats.  

I’m all in favor of diversity. However, dividing ourselves into “vaccination tribes” may not be the best way to celebrate our differences.

Alas, my current research on inclusion and exclusion leads me to conclude that as long as the human race exists, we will continue to self-select into tribes. Social identity theory posits that we categorize people, figure out the group that matches our identity, and then compare ourselves with other groups.

Our self-esteem is bound up in belonging to a group, especially if it is high status. This is how humans are made, and almost any excuse will do: skin color (but not eye color, for some reason, at least outside of this fascinating experiment), ethnicity, religion, party affiliation.

Pick a difference, no matter how arbitrary or trivial, and someone will be out there with a crowbar, jamming it in to widen the crack between two groups. 

If not enough of the U.S. population gets vaccinated, the virus may continue to mutate, more people will die unnecessarily, the crisis will drag on, and more lockdowns may be imposed.

If vaccine hesitancy isn’t overcome soon, the early vaccination successes may yet become a case study of “divided we fall”.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 30, 2021 on Evaluate This, a website featuring commentary by Nils Junge, an independent consultant working in the field of international development. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Junge.


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