After President Biden promoted door-to-door efforts to encourage folks to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina denounced the campaign as intimidation and coercion. White House press secretary Jen Psaki could not contain her disdain for the governor’s lethal lunacy.

McMaster’s “failure to provide accurate public health information,” she told reporters, is “literally killing people.”

By turning vaccines into a partisan weapon, McMaster and other Republicans are endangering their own supporters who buy their crazed conspiracies and refuse inoculation. It’s all another Big Lie, strikingly similar to Donald Trump’s totally fallacious claim that he actually won the 2020 election—a denial of facts and of reality itself.

But this Big Lie is even more dangerous. It threatens to divide us into a Blue America, largely vaccinated and relatively safe, and a Red America that remains unprotected and increasingly vulnerable.

The number of COVID-19 cases has doubled in recent weeks, reports the Associated Press, fueled mainly by “lagging vaccination rates.”

About two-thirds of Americans say they’ve received at least one shot of the vaccine, but the partisan divide is stunning. According to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, 86% of Democrats have been jabbed at least once, compared to only 45% of Republicans. Only 6% of Democrats say they’ll never get the shot, while 38% of Republicans completely rule it out.

Not all Republican governors share McMaster’s damaging delusions. Jim Justice of West Virginia has set up a lottery, rewarding citizens who get their shots, and he said this about anti-vaxxers on ABC: “You’ve got another lottery for them, and it’s a death lottery.”

The question now is: How do we halt the “death lottery”? What can alter the odds in favor of survival? Biden has tried hard, pleading with Americans that getting vaccinated is “the most patriotic thing you can do.”

But he’s unlikely to reach the staunchest resisters. In a recent Axios/Ipsos poll, 91% of those expressing a “great deal of trust” in the federal government have already been injected; of those who profess “no trust at all” in Washington, only 35% have taken their shot, and the rest are not listening to the president.

The GOP’s Sanity Caucus, which does include some courageous governors, can certainly help. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas made this point on ABC’s “This Week”: “There shouldn’t be a partisan divide, first of all. In the Southern states and some rural states, you have that more conservative approach, skepticism about government. And we just have to answer it just like we have all through history, that you overcome skepticism and mistrust by truth.”

Good luck, but the mutated forms of the Trump virus reject the whole concept of verifiable “truth.” A better bet are the grass-roots campaigns championed by the White House: squads of “trusted messengers” who reach out to their own communities.

One example: Leaders of the Temple of Praise, a predominantly Black church in southeast Washington, got vaccinated during worship services. The New York Times reports that a “door-knocking effort began recently in Toledo, Ohio, where the city’s Fire and Rescue Department has used a roving medical unit to vaccinate people on the street.”

“The federal government is playing catch-up to what works,” Dr. Jehan El-Bayoumi of George Washington University told the Times. “People trust their spiritual leaders more than doctors and government leaders.”

All efforts at persuasion have distinct limits, however. Only mandates will really work. The government won’t impose them, but private institutions—hospitals, universities and businesses—are already starting to. I teach at George Washington University, and I had to upload my vaccination record before gaining access to my office and parking garage. It’s a totally reasonable request to ensure a safe workplace for everyone.

“A Rockefeller Foundation and Arizona State University survey of more than 1,300 medium and large companies in the United States and Britain found that more than half said they would require employees to show proof of vaccination,” reports the Times.

Vaccination mandates are completely legal under a 1905 Supreme Court decision. They are also effective, Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global law at Georgetown University, told the Times: “Vaccine mandates have been very successful in the United States and globally, even in politically difficult situations, because they make becoming vaccinated the default. We have to make being unvaccinated the hard choice, not the easy one.”

The only sure way to thwart the “death lottery” is through mandates. Don’t gamble with people’s lives.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

© 2021 STEVEN AND COKIE ROBERTS

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