Shaming unvaccinated people has to stop. We’ve turned into an angry mob and it’s getting ugly

Written by Alberto Giubilini and Julian Savulescu. Cross-Posted from The Conversation 
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Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford and Alberto Giubilini, University of Oxford

Unvaccinated mother, 27, dies with coronavirus as her father calls for fines for people who refuse jab.

This is the kind of headline you may have seen over the past year, an example highlighting public shaming of unvaccinated people who die of COVID-19.

One news outlet compiled a list of “notable anti-vaxxers who have died from COVID-19”.

There’s shaming on social media, too. For instance, a whole Reddit channel is devoted to mocking people who die after refusing the vaccine.

COVID-19 vaccinations save lives and reduce the need for hospitalisation. This is all important public health information.

Telling relatable stories and using emotive language about vaccination sends a message: getting vaccinated is good.

But the problem with the examples above is their tone and the way unvaccinated people are singled out. There’s also a murkier reason behind this shaming.

Why do we shame people?

Public shaming is not new. It is entrenched in human history and psychology. From an evolutionary perspective, shame is a way of keeping individuals accountable to the other members of their community for their perceived anti-social behaviours.

Philosophers Guy Aitchison and Saladin Meckled-Garcia say online public shaming is a way of collectively punishing a person “for having a certain kind of moral character”. This punishment (or “reputational cost”) can be a way of enforcing norms in society.

Man pointing finger, shaming other man, whose head is hung low
Shaming is a way of keeping people accountable for their ‘wrongs’. It also helps us feel better about ourselves.
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However, shaming others is also a way of signalling our own virtue and trustworthiness. Moralising about other people’s behaviour can help us feel better about ourselves.

The online world exacerbates this human tendency. It polarises two heavily moralised camps: the self-perceived good, responsible people on one side (the shaming ones), and the ones considered bad, irresponsible people on the other (the shamed ones).

Vaccination has become such a sensitive issue it easily triggers the instinct to shame others.

Do people deserve to be shamed?

Shaming people for their health-related choices disregards the complexities about whether people are individually responsible for their own decisions.

Take obesity, another example associated with public shaming. The extent to which individuals are responsible for their obesity or for the lifestyle that causes obesity is complex. We need to consider issues including genes, environment, wealth, as well as choice. Indeed, shaming people for their obesity (“fat shaming”) is widely considered unacceptable.

Likewise, low levels of vaccine uptake in some communities is often linked to structural inequalities, including health inequality, and a resulting lack of trust. The blame for this situation is typically placed on broader society and institutions, and not on the affected groups or individuals.

If someone cannot be blamed for something, then shaming them is not ethically justifiable.

In discussions of responsibility it is now common to focus on “structural injustice” or “inequality” – the injustice of various social factors that shape choice and behaviour.

This applies not only to obesity, drugs, alcohol but also to vaccination decisions.

Even where this is not the case, there has been a targeted, systematic and even state-sponsored misinformation campaign about vaccines. People who are misinformed are victims, not perpetrators.

Finally, we should remember why medical ethics has designated autonomy and consent as foundational ethical values. Even where there is a clear expected benefit, and only very rare side effects, these won’t be shared equally. Many will have their lives saved. But some people will be the ones who suffer the harms. This a strong reason for respecting people’s decision about what risks to take on themselves.

Barring any public health issue, an individual should make the decisions about health risks, whether they are from the disease or vaccines. Shaming them disregards the complexities of the distribution of risks and benefits, of the way individual values affect individual risk assessment, and of personal circumstances shaping individuals’ views on vaccines.

Granted, public health ethics is a broader area and autonomy does not have the same weight there, because other people’s health interests are at stake.

But when public health issues do arise, it is up to public health authorities to limit autonomy through appropriate and more ethical strategies.

One of us (Savulescu) has previously argued for incentives to vaccinate. Mandatory vaccination (such as imposing fines, or other penalties such as limitations on access to certain spaces) would require a separate ethical discussion, but could also be preferable in certain circumstances.

Shaming is a form of vigilantism

One could plausibly imagine shaming pleases people who are vaccinated – especially the most self-righteous among them. But those who are opposed to vaccines, or who mistrust the government messages, are unlikely to be persuaded and may even be entrenched.

Even if shaming was effective, shaming wouldn’t necessarily be ethically justified. Not everything that is effective at achieving a goal is also ethical. Torture is, generally, not a justifiable way to obtain information, even if that information is credible and life-saving.

Shaming is a form of vigilantism, a mob behaviour. We have moved beyond burning witches or atheists, or lynching wrong-doers. We should stop doing these things also in the metaphorical sense.

We have parliaments and formal mechanisms for limiting behaviour, or incentivising it. We should leave it to these to regulate behaviour, not the media or the mob.The Conversation

Julian Savulescu, Visiting Professor in Biomedical Ethics, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute; Distinguished Visiting Professor in Law, University of Melbourne; Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, University of Oxford and Alberto Giubilini, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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13 Responses to Shaming unvaccinated people has to stop. We’ve turned into an angry mob and it’s getting ugly

  • Luna says:

    One simpler reason people engage in public shaming: They are just frustrated with the pandemic. They are sick of masks. Sick of social distancing. Sick of being separated from friends and families. Sick of not being able to go to any number of crowded and enjoyable public spaces. Sick of any and every other societal priority (from education to climate change) being put on the backburner. (In the US there was even a statistic than 1 in 7 adults missed riding their city Light Rail, Metro or Subway “a lot”.)

    These people see vaccines as the most important thing on the road to making life more normal again. And to those who talk about what was wrong with “the old normal”, I would reply that pre-Covid-19 I never heard any social reformer or idealistic argue that to build a better society we needed to become a society of homebodies and half-shut-ins. If anything, they tended to go for a society that was more convivial and more “eyes on the street” than pre-Covid-19 life in the modern Western world. Social distancing has an inherently awkward relationship with public transit and renewable energy, civil society, providing a good education especially to younger kids, and so much more.

    While one can easily argue that shaming might not be a very effective tactic, I believe it more commonly comes from a place of frustration than any virtue signaling.

    When somebody choses not to get vaccinated this is a choice for other citizens not just htemselves. Namely it is a “vote” for more lockdowns, more masks, more school closures.

    • Sarah says:

      Even countries with super high levels of vaccination (eg Portugal) are struggling now. Others, like Singapore, with high levels of vaccination have kept strict travel restrictions. There’s strong evidence that vaccinated people who get infected have exactly the same levels of virus. They are only somewhat less likely to get infected. Although they are much less likely to be hospitalised, they still make up the bulk of hospitalisations in highly vaccinated countries. You can’t really say the unvaccinated are causing the problem. They tare not helping as much as they could perhaps, but if everyone got vcaccinated this problem wouldn’t disappear. You might be right that the unvaccinated are being used as a scapegoat but it isn’t a good reason.

  • Pavel Novak says:

    The reason of shaming is following:

    we determined to fight back against pandemic. But man is not strong enough to change the world. Our will is powerless. Just about this powerlessness we are angry and frustrated. And our frustration turns against unvaccinated.
    Violence is always the consequence when we think that we can plan all the things, when we think that we can reach the aim. No point if the aim is the race clean society (nazis), the society without classes (bolsheviks) or society without unvaccinated.

  • Anton Alterman says:

    “Shaming people for their health-related choices disregards the complexities about whether people are individually responsible for their own decisions.

    Take obesity, another example associated with public shaming. The extent to which individuals are responsible for their obesity or for the lifestyle that causes obesity is complex. We need to consider issues including genes, environment, wealth, as well as choice. Indeed, shaming people for their obesity (“fat shaming”) is widely considered unacceptable.

    Likewise, low levels of vaccine uptake in some communities is often linked to structural inequalities, including health inequality, and a resulting lack of trust. The blame for this situation is typically placed on broader society and institutions, and not on the affected groups or individuals.”

    1. The comparison with obesity is inapt. The obesity of others at most affects the social cost of health care. Failure to take the most effective measures to stop the spread of a disease that has killed more than 5 million people so far is not comparable. It could be argued that shaming is never appropriate for any reason whatsoever, but you do not seem to be making that case; rather, your point is about public shaming for health-related issues, which you reject due to the “complexity” of the choices involved. But the complexity of choices involved in what you eat on a daily basis is not comparable to the “complexity” of getting a vaccine, which most people have previously had for numerous other diseases; and the utility of staying slim is not comparable to the utility of minimizing the spread of deadly germs. So I don’t think this argument goes through. The choice is not that “complex” and the benefits are that it is most likely the only way to stop the spread of a deadly illness, with all of its social and economic ramifications.

    2. You attribute a lack of “trust” to inequality, but that is to split up the anti-vax sentiment in a way that is not underpinned by data or logic. There are anti-vax people from every socioeconomic bracket. You are free to surmise that one group doesn’t trust vaccines due to racial or national oppression, another doesn’t trust them due to ethical or emotional issues with government interference in their personal lives, another doesn’t trust them out of general ethical concerns about the power of technology, etc. But the underlying scientific facts are that vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccines are the outcome of decades of medical research involving scientific communities all over the world, they are subjected to rigorous testing, and their risks are known and publicly acknowledged. So whatever the basis of the “mistrust”, it is contrary to science and harmful to the public interest (quite apart from ludicrous conspiracy theories, which completely lack scientific evidence). In short, lack of trust may be something we need to understand, but not to validate as a legitimate reason for not getting vaccinated.

    3. Your argument that there is a risk of reaction for “some” people is quite backwards, in my opinion. The fact that the risks are known, and are minimal, is a reason to insist that everyone get vaccinated unless their personal medical history puts them at much higher risk than others. Otherwise, failure to get the vaccine is like saying, “I am willing to take the risk of endangering myself and others in order to reduce my own extremely small risk of a vaccine reaction to zero.” That is both irrational and socially irresponsible and does not constitute a reasonable objection to getting vaccinated.

    “Public shaming” brings to mind people being paraded through the streets and abused. “Online shaming” is supposed to be a modern version of that. But the online version of it is verbal (or pictorial) and remote, and therefore shades into what can also be called “criticism”. Part of what you seem to be opposed to is the form that criticism takes. But if I say online, “These people were opposed to vaccines and died of COVID-19:…”, the criticism certainly seems to be implied (although it could be interpreted by an anti-Vaxer as praise for their courage), but it does not seem to me to have the form of “shaming”. “Look at these idiots who refused the vaccine and died as a result of their own stubbornness, they got what they deserved” – that’s “shaming”. I’m not sure it would be a helpful tactic, but I’m also not sure we can afford to overlook any non-violent means of persuasion given the gravity of the situation.

    • sarah says:

      1. There is no complexity in what you eat every day, if you ignore psychological issues as you do here for vaccination
      2. The phenomenon of people becoming addicted to and then killed by prescription painkillers was started by drugs which were released by drug companies as the “outcome of decades of medical research involving scientific communities all over the world,…subjected to rigorous testing, and their risks are known and publicly acknowledged”. Over a million people have been killed this way. I am fully vaccinated and don’t have a particular axe to grind here, but it’s extremely easy to find cases that show that this process is not watertight.

      • Anton Alterman says:

        1. “There is no complexity in what you eat every day…” – do you mean it is not complex whether you go to the refrigerator and get an apple or a can of soda? But that is the end result of an stack of complex social choices which are guided by numerous factors, including: family training and pressures, availability of a variety of food choices, cost of healthy vs. unhealthy foods, peer social pressure, ability to read and assess the content of food labels, susceptibility to deceptive advertising, employment-related food options and needs, and food needs and urges related to other medical conditions. (Diabetics have to measure food consumption in relation to insulin intake, which is more an art than a science and can lead to consumption of calories to avoid hypoglycemic conditions.) These are not “psychological issues”, they are social and medical issues.

        2. Seriously, are you comparing the over-prescription and deceptive marketing of opioids, resulting in a massive and often fatal addiction problem, to the development of life-saving vaccines? I can’t wrap my mind around that argument. What the opioid crisis should be compared to is the hysterical anti-vax conspiracy movement. They at least share the qualities of cynical disregard for the cost in human lives, and being fostered by factual and rhetorical errors. No one said the vaccine development process is “watertight”. You take a scientific approach to determining the risk of the vaccine vs. the risk of not being vaccinated, and the evidence is unequivocal that the benefits vastly outweigh the risks. To wait for something that’s “watertight” is to deny the possibility of scientific progress. It’s like people who insist that evolution is “only a theory” – everything we think we know is “only a theory” in this sense, so we don’t know anything and we might as well all do whatever we want, science be damned. This is just the ticket for the tribe of people demanding “freedom” of various sorts – freedom to get others sick, freedom to carry around assault rifles, freedom to teach religious beliefs as scientific, freedom to burn all the carbon they want… it all comes down to freedom to ignore facts they don’t like and act on ignorance. No one has ever had the freedom to act in a way that demonstrably poses a direct and serious risk to others. When there is a clear scientific consensus that there is a fatal risk in certain human behaviors there is no choice but to accept it. If we hadn’t done that a few years ago we’d now have a widening hole in the ozone layer and the earth would eventually be uninhabitable.

  • mark e waydaka says:

    there is not 1 of the reasons in this article that even remotely applies to the subject. getting vaccinated is not something that we can leave up to highly the subjective morals of a fraction of the population who seem to think their ideas and opinions have more value than anyone else and that they are free to put many other peope at risk because they are cowards. this is not grammer school this is a world wide epidemic and millions of people have already died and millions more will die if everyone who can be vaccinated isn’t. this is like a war and in a war people do things they wouldn’t ordinary do. dying for the benefit of others is something you see alot in a war and even those who won’t agree to fight (consiencious objectors) are required to help the war effort in some way. this is a time to do things you wouldn’t ordinarly do, being selfish won’t work here and being one of the unvaccinated is being selfish

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    The last line reads: “We have parliaments and formal mechanisms for limiting behaviour, or incentivising it. We should leave it to these to regulate behaviour, not the media or the mob.” A government or public authoritycan make vaccination mandatory. Both of us have extensively reviewed the arguments for this elsewhere. See for example: https://jme.bmj.com/content/47/2/78 What we argued here is that society should not use shaming to promote vaccination.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for this article. As an unvaccinated person I am just so disturbed and worn out by the baying mob. I just can hardly believe in this world that its OK for world leaders to call people stupid, idiotic, misogynistic, racist, non citizens, enemies (and cowards by the previous poster)…..for making a personal choice in regards a medical intervention. A medical intervention might I add that does not stop transmission of the virus, full stop. So the risk I am taking is all my own. I cannot believe the anger and vemon directed me and so many others like me, is for my own good, it really doesn’t seem like that. The rage seems to be borne from the fact that I won’t do what the majority think I should do. Is this how the world should be? Bullying, threatening, coercing, name calling, excluding, punishing? I think history will look back in horror at what became of the so called liberal left during this period (of which I formerly identified). I hope to god I survive this awful awful time but even if I don’t I hope the Shamers will come to realise it is their behaviour of which they should be ashamed. Also to the previous commenter, please stop using the term anti vaxxer, it is intended to insult offend and belittle and its not accurate, the vast majority of people who have not taken this vaccine have taken every other vaccine offered in the course of their lives.

    • Cambo says:

      I agree with your post. I am vaccinated against my will, held to ransom by my employer.
      Minorities shamed over time, let’s look at that. Yes there was a time when you were killed for not believing in God, a time when a minority of women said enough is enough and a minority of black and white people that said this is ludicrous, we are all human, stop your madness and the shamers over time fall silent.
      Until now, when the sheeple now have an opportunity to shame the unvaccinated eventhough we have seen vaccinated die, the virus spreads, the regular flu is 8 times more deadly than carona, our immune systems are designed to cope with viruses, politicians and top health officers and doctors have bonuses, grants and other funding given to them by big Pharma not to mention the Murdoch agenda in the media. In time these brain washed sheep will come to learn that this was a big farce.

  • Anonymous says:

    To the commenters who repeatedly say the unvaccinated are putting the vaccinated at risk, you clearly do not understand the science regarding these vaccines. They do not stop transmission, that is unequivocal, there are more vaccinated people spreading the virus than unvaccinated. This argument does not stand up.

  • Anton Alterman says:

    Sorry, but it is your argument that does not stand up. They “do not stop transmission” WHEN a vaccinated person is infected in spite of being vaccinated. What they do is reduce the number of people who are infected in the first place, which reduces the possible cases of transmission. Also, the fewer people infected, the fewer opportunities to generate new mutations, and the fewer opportunities for new mutations to become widespread. Nothing will “stop transmission” of a contagious illness 100%. Demands for 100% effectiveness or 100% safety are just a misunderstanding of how medical science has always worked.

  • Anonymous says:

    Well how do you explain 4 doses in Israel and highest case numbers of whole pandemic right now? One of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world. Sorry still doesn’t stand up. Case numbers exploding all over the vaccinated world. ….how can you say vaccines reducing transmission seriously? Omricon nearly totally evading current vaccine “immunity” which lasts a mere 3 months if your lucky….You need to read up on your science……

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