Within a year the United States has advanced from Covid-19 hotspot to vaccination champion. While the willingness to receive a vaccination depends firmly on party affiliation, the U.S. has mastered the development, distribution, and administration of the vaccines in record time. Addressing skepticism early on and providing comprehensive communication strategies have supported the quest for mass vaccination. Are there potential lessons to be drawn for Europe’s vaccination progress?
A Comment by Robin Haug and Franziska Riel
In December 2020, Joe Biden announced his ambitious plan of 100 million Covid-19 vaccinations being administered during his first 100 days in office. After achieving this goal in March 2021 and long before the set deadline, the U.S. president even raised his aim up to 200 million vaccinations within his first 100 days. A goal which he could achieve even without any major disturbances. Given the current, partly chaotic vaccination situation on the European continent with vaccines being a rare good, ordering problems throughout the European Union, and the communication disaster around AstraZeneca, not just a handful of transatlantic experts might look across the pond with envy in their eyes.
The reasons for the success of the U.S. vaccination strategy are various. Apart from hard and well-known facts like early negotiated delivery contracts with the pharmaceutical industry, we want to focus on the societal and communicative aspect, since not even the best strategy can be successfully implemented if people are not mobilised. This is especially true for a society that traditionally embraces self-responsibility and individual freedom – which eventually goes hand-in-hand with a certain amount of skepticism towards governmental interference. In the end, we might deliver an additional perspective on what Europe could already learn, when political representatives need to mobilise those who are much more hesitant towards the Covid-19 vaccines here across the Atlantic.
“It’s the economy, stupid!”
Bound together stronger than Bonnie and Clyde, Nixon and Watergate, or Donald Trump and alternative facts, Americans rank their concerns for the nation’s economy as the top political priority. Even during the year of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, a relative majority of 35 percent of Americans claimed that the economy was their number one voting priority in the presidential elections in 2020. Therefore, incumbents and challengers have always been wisely advised to focus a key part of their campaigns on the economic development of the country or to put it in the words of Bill Clinton’s election campaign official James Carville from 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
This pattern can also be found in current polls about the pandemic and why it should be tackled. A recent study of the Pew Research Center identifies that 80 percent of Americans widely agree that strengthening the U.S. economy should be among the top 5 political priorities for the current administration. At the same time, more Americans believe that the coronavirus is a major threat to the U.S. economy. Therefore, 3 out of 4 Americans commonly agree that getting the nation widely vaccinated plays a huge factor in rescuing the economy and getting the country back to normalcy.
This conviction is also shared by a majority on both sides of the political aisle, even if Democratic support outweighs Republican support by more than 20 points here. Nevertheless, the restoration of the economy is a solid and reliable argument why a vast majority of U.S.-Americans support Biden’s vaccination campaign despite his’ average approval ratings.
But it’s always politics
It is no big surprise that in a time when politics is everywhere and the U.S. society has been polarised by it – especially in the last four years but even before – to such a high degree, that the individual question of whether people want to get vaccinated is highly political as well. As the federal government is strongly pushing the nationwide vaccination campaign forward, the main societal cleavage runs among party affiliation – business as usual. Despite the majority of U.S. citizens agreeing on the structural vaccination necessity to keep the country’s economy running, the individual willingness to get vaccinated highly depends on political affiliation.
According to Gallup, 94 percent of Democrats have already or are individually willing to receive a Covid-19 vaccination in comparison to 54 percent of Republicans saying the same. A major reason for this 40 percentage points gap seems to lie in the individual risk assessment dealing with the pandemic. When asked in March whether the pandemic was made a bigger or smaller political issue than people individually thought, 90 percent of Republicans said the pandemic was actually a much bigger crisis. To put it differently, 9 out of 10 Republicans assess a small to moderate individual risk towards the pandemic.
In comparison, 87 percent of Democrats claimed that the pandemic was approached just about right or that the pandemic has been made a smaller deal than it actually is. Again, nearly 9 out of 10 Democrats assess a moderate to high individual risk level to the pandemic. This huge gap between Republicans and Democrats in their individual risk assessment towards Covid-19 could explain the Democrats’ much bigger individual willingness to get vaccinated. Nevertheless, the U.S. vaccination campaign has not yet reached a structural problem in achieving its goal to widely vaccinate the U.S. population, even though people in widely Trump-supporting states seem to be the most hesitant to get vaccinated.
The overall vaccine skepticism is decreasing constantly on a structural level. Biden’s vaccination campaign might take some bumps with regard to its speed throughout the summer, but it seems to be rather a question of how to mobilise and convince hesitant Americans instead of a situation arising in which a big minority will not get their shots.
Tailored messages from trusted messengers
Aside from infrastructural and organisational measures put in place, communication toolkits were drafted by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and other public health initiatives to effectively promote the vaccine shots. These toolkits cater to healthcare providers and medical staff to build trust in the vaccine and instill positive attitudes among recipients. In addition to general guidelines, social media templates, videos, and infographics – and yes, stickers – these resources include tailored toolkits for specific audiences.
Healthcare professionals and pharmacists might require a different approach from essential workers or teachers. With efforts like these, the U.S. health community has taken extensive measures to provide tailored messages addressing skepticism among the population. In comparison, the EMA (European Medicines Agency) and the ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) focus their online response resources on facts and data, information sheets, rollout progress, and vaccine tracking exclusively.
While such communicative measures resulted in initial mass vaccination among Americans, the U.S. is approaching the tipping point at which supply exceeds demand. This marks a critical point in time as the vaccination coverage rate has yet to increase from currently 32 percent to roughly 70 percent to effectively contain the virus. Surveys show that doctors are among the most trusted messengers to convince vaccine-skeptics of all demographics. Another initiative to evaluate successful communicative strategies was launched by the de Baumont Foundation in cooperation with Republican pollster Frank Luntz. In an effort to change the conversation around the vaccination and heighten acceptance rates, the survey established a specific set of vocabulary that emphasises the vaccine’s benefits, safety, and effectiveness.
A focus group with Republican voters dismantled their reservations and allowed for a comprehensive understanding as to how to positively influence their willingness to be vaccinated after all. According to key findings, Republicans want scientific data decoupled from political debate, they do trust their doctors more than any politician, including former President Trump, and they were affected by personal stories highlighting the virus’ unpredictability. As a bottom line, these resources attempt to frame the vaccine as a non-political, exclusively medical issue. The surveys have revealed that targeted messages delivered by trusted messengers are a worthwhile pursuit in order to reach the critical number of vaccinated Americans.
His name shall briefly be mentioned
With a history of fatally downplaying the threat posed by the virus, Donald Trump might not serve as a credible messenger to promote the vaccine. It was only revealed in March that, in fact, the former president and first lady had already received their first shots prior to departing the White House. Trump’s subsequent support for the vaccination was, however, meager and amounts to mumbling “Everybody go get your shot” during his appearance at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) – a gesture which certainly did not leave his supporters enthusiastic on the issue.
Interestingly enough, former Vice President Michael Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence were vaccinated in front of cameras last December. In addition, a recent video by the Ad Council displayed the support for the vaccines by all living presidents and first ladies – the Trump couple prominently missing. Nevertheless, voices have been raised that want to credit Operation Warp Speed, the often criticised public-private initiative entrusted with the task of developing and distributing the vaccine during the Trump administration, with at least some respect.
While the rate by which the vaccines were distributed and administered may fall into President Biden’s territory, Trump paved the way for eliminating bureaucratic boundaries and developing the vaccines in record time. For the current administration to acknowledge the involvement of its predecessor, despite the many shortcomings of Trump, would send a clear signal to Americans that the pandemic is not another partisan issue, but truly of national interest that is best fought with joint forces.
American Pragmatism at work
The United States was hit hard by Covid-19 and the corresponding death toll reveals a dire picture of initial mismanagement and inadequate response. Whether it will be acknowledged by either Democrats or Republicans, fighting the pandemic was a bipartisan effort: the Trump administration paved the way even if reluctantly, and the Biden administration excelled in making the vaccines readily available. The United States demonstrated its ability to expand all efforts in times of crisis – a practice that can be subsumed under the term of American Pragmatism.
While confronted with a once-in-a-century pandemic, the U.S. was able to temporarily lift policy restrictions, overcome bureaucratic burdens, and accelerate scientific processes to facilitate the development of vaccinations in record time. American Pragmatism secured a fast development, distribution, and inoculation of the vaccines, guided by a comprehensive communication strategy that sought to address vaccination skepticism from the beginning. It might be a safe guess to assume that the same demonstration of pragmatism will eventually lead to an effective vaccination rate among the American population as well.
The European Union, in contrast, was ill-equipped to demonstrate a similarly pragmatic strategy of rational choices and foresight, and failed to effectively communicate a comprehensive vaccination strategy. With vaccination rates finally gaining in speed, it is hoped that some display of European Pragmatism will follow suit.
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Robin works as an international business consultant and helps to improve the state of digitization in the German public sector. He obtained a Master of Arts degree in Political Science with a focus on International and European politics from the University of Bamberg. Beforehand, he studied Political Science at the universities of Freiburg and Cardiff. He focuses his analyses and expertise on foreign policies of major powers, international organizations such as the UN, the EU, and NATO, and the development of (national) political identities. The U.S. and the transatlantic partnership has been a regional focus for Robin throughout his professional and personal life. He is a member of the programme The America(n)s at Polis180.
Franziska has a professional record in academia, public relations, and political institutions. Combining her interests in political communication and American politics, she has focused her research on presidential rhetoric and bipartisan challenges aspiring from the two-party system. She holds bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and International Development from the University of Vienna and a master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin. At Polis180 she is a member of the programme The America(n)s.