“A spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down, but policymakers did notneed to bribe anyone to take the polio vaccine. People recognized Jonas Salk’s 1953 breakthrough against the virus that crippled Franklin D. Roosevelt and countless others for the miracle it was. Parents raced to inoculate their kids to spare them from the iron lung.
Alas, amid a surplus of shots, demand continues to slow. Fresh polling shows 1 in 4 Americans say they definitely or probably will not get immunized. For a variety of reasons — deeper political polarization, declining trust in government, mounting skepticism of science, a diminishing sense of obligation to the common good — this is not Jonas Salk’s America.
As a result, well-intentioned politicians in both parties are frantically trying to coax constituents to protect themselves by offering increasingly desperate giveaways. Private sector nudges are one thing, but these taxpayer-funded handouts send a troubling message to holdouts. Even if they’re marginally helpful, the incentives feel increasingly off-putting and potentially counterproductive.
Ohio’s governor announced he will use federal covid relief money to give five $1 million jackpots to adults who get vaccinated and five full-ride scholarships to in-state public universities for teenagers who do so. Kentucky will hand out225,000 coupons for free lottery tickets across 170 vaccination sites. West Virginia’s governor plans to use $27.5 million in federal funds to give $100 saving bonds to residents between the ages of 16 to 35 who get a shot.
Maine will give away 10,000 licenses for hunting and fishing. New York gives free seven-day unlimited MetroCards to residents who come to subway stations for vaccinations. The county that includes Houston earmarked $250,000 in taxpayer funds for gift cards and other vaccine incentives, including Astros second baseman José Altuve bobbleheads.
Think about how entitled and spoiled this must look to the developing world, desperate for access to vaccines. As states and cities sweeten the pot, India isrecording more than 4,500 covid deaths per day.
Public health officials in Ohio cite a modest rebound in vaccination rates asevidence the lottery is working as intended, but interviews on the ground show most people being targeted by the campaign seem unmoved. Spending $5 million may not seem like much when trillions of federal dollars are sloshing around the economy like funny money, but it’s more than many Ohioans will earn for a lifetime of work.
Human subject research suggests, however, that gimmicks such as these can backfire. Sometimes offering payments to do something makes people more suspicious and the behavior seem riskier. Moreover, scientists say people will probably need booster shots to protect against new variants. Handing out cash now may habituate segments of the population to hold out for more perks in the future. Freebies also don’t address mistrust or misinformation about the vaccines.
Employers should accommodate workers by giving them paid time off in case of side effects. Private businesses can nudge customers to make the right decisions by offering promotional giveaways for beers, crawfish, doughnuts,fries, pizza or sports tickets. It’s wonderful that Uber and Lyft are offering free rides to vaccine appointments. This is corporate responsibility — and good business.
Government has other levers to pull. Politicians have relied on carrots because they’re overly reluctant to use sticks that could prompt a public outcry, such as requiring vaccine passports to travel or attend sporting events.
Government exists to protect its citizens, and it is clear that the greater public good is to vaccinate as much of the population as possible. Members of the military, public employees and students should all be required to get vaccinated, absent legitimate excuses for opting out. Yes, there might be backlash, but in some ways politicians have invited that, by using euphemisms such as “vaccine hesitant” to describe people who — let’s face it — selfishly ignore experts.
This contagion has killed more than 586,000 Americans and infected more than 33 million. Countless victims report long-haul symptoms. This alone should instill sufficient fear in the holdouts to roll up their sleeves for a jab. After all, the vaccine is a free return ticket to normal life. People shouldn’t need to be paid to take it.“