There has always been scattered opposition to vaccination ever since Edward Jenner invented it in the eighteenth century, but the current level and intensity of “antivaxx” insanity in America is only imaginable in a world where epidemics, and the terror they bring, had been forgotten. It is true that in the pre-COVID world, seasonal flu was killing thousands a year, but these deaths usually occurred beneath public notice, largely among elderly, hospitalized patients. They didn’t seem to affect daily life for most people, the majority of whom were not getting their flu shots.
That was a far cry from America as recently as 1950, when a polio epidemic raged and many other potentially deadly infectious diseases were a part of the gamut everyone ran in childhood. My mother, now in her early eighties, was in elementary school at the time and says she understood perfectly clearly that her doctor father was protecting her by not letting her go swimming in public pools in the hot Philadelphia summers. People were ecstatic when the polio vaccines came out, even though the first one actually did have a safety flaw that killed many before it was fixed. There was no question of mass resistance to this life-saving development, although the same era saw the beginnings of the anti-fluoridation movement on the paranoid right, the direct precursor of today’s know-nothing anti-public health rage.
If COVID-19 is now going to be “endemic,” and the epidemiologists are right that we must brace ourselves against God-knows-what coming down the pike, the result for America will not be a reversion to the world of 1950, because society and technology have changed out of all recognition since then. The MAGAs and loony left my-body-is-a-temple types who imagine they will boldly stride through life, unaffected by the disease and death raging all around them, are of course delusional. Advancing technology will continue to make new vaccines, treatments, and countermeasures available, but many will not take advantage of them, due to the same mingled causes we see now: lack of access to medical care, belief in lies, confusion and fear. Added to the many other factors splitting America apart will be the emergence of two distinctly new classes: the (relatively) healthy and the disease- and superstition-ridden. Behavior will change in all sorts of hard-to-predict ways as people attempt to protect themselves and their families, some by effective means, many more with snake oil. Panics and manic enthusiasms will grip the public as never before. The almighty idol of economic growth, to which both red states and blue are gleefully sacrificing lives right now, will never show its smiling face from the heavens again.
If, as appears likely, the Republic falls to Farce-Fascism under Trump or someone even worse, the government will have its own, malevolent agenda, likely amounting to attempts to protect favored classes of supporters while leaving others to their fate, or perhaps even deliberately spreading disease among the disfavored classes and races. That’s not likely to work out well for anyone, even the crackpot wise men serving the Leader, as viruses have their own ideas. America in twenty or thirty years may look quite a bit like Russia today, a bankrupt, pariah nation with an impoverished, sick population of addicts that no one else would care about, except for its powerful, destructive, but incompetently led military and its clutch of nuclear weapons.