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Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

On Anti-Vaxxers Amongst Your Family or Friends

While the anti-vaccine movement presents an obvious, inexcusable physical threat to many of us, an emotional harm can just as easily originate. It is one thing for our extended family’s conspiracy-provoking Facebook posts to cause an eye-roll or to find out that one roommate’s unvaccinated parent used your apartment bathroom during Parents' Weekend. It is another thing entirely for a family or friend group’s shared standards of safety and accountability to be shattered. This can lead to a fractured and antagonistic relationship in a group, often resulting in emotional harm to some degree. It feels as if many of us have someone important to us who is anti-vax or vaccine-hesitant.

Coming together as a group is how we establish solidarity and collectively make sense of things, from celebrations to losses to everything in between. In our culture, holidays are often the central form of showing appreciation for other family members and expressing shared values. In order to have a successful holiday gathering, it is important to establish standards that enable everyone’s comfort. When one family member refuses to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the foundational expectations that establish the gathering as “safe” are completely wiped away.

Meetings of friend groups are often a daily or weekly occurrence that develop a cohesive and supportive network of people who partake in one similar way of life. Friendships serve important roles, such as motivating one’s coming to work or school each day, checking in with one’s mental and emotional health, and successfully navigating a challenge. A member of a friend group who refuses vaccination is at odds with the safety expectations of the other friends during gatherings, which undermines the tenet of solidarity that the group is built on.

Vaccination stance is a life-and-death, harm-or-health matter that destroys the rooted togetherness of family and friend groups. We don’t talk enough about the intrusive reality of having anti-vax loved ones, which seems to be somehow getting worse. Just as discussing politics or religion in any group context is considered “taboo,” mentioning our acceptance of clear science is entering the same fate. It's as if there is some force or inner voice that encourages us to pursue an interaction without mentioning the matter of vaccines. We tell ourselves, “If we talk about anything but politics, and vaccines by extension, we will be just fine!”

However, what if we were to change that habit? This may seem uncomfortable for many of us. That is the point. If we were to dive into uncertainty and practice exposing our opinions to those we cherish, I believe we would be more productive than if we avoided the subject of vaccines altogether. We must stand our ground, but also practice empathy and remain cognizant of the more powerful social forces at hand in shaping one’s opinions. It may seem obvious, but nothing good is going to come out of doing nothing at all, and acknowledging the presence of an uncomfortable tension is no exception. I can’t promise that your apartment bathroom won’t be invaded again, but I can hope that we can at least encourage more people to accept the science of vaccines.