The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted unprecedented efforts to curb its spread, with vaccinations being a pivotal strategy in reducing mortality and transmission. As vaccines have become widely available, public health experts have strongly encouraged people of all ages to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities.
However, this emphasis on vaccination has also given rise to a complex social phenomenon – the stigmatization and prejudice faced by those who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics aimed to investigate whether the negative sentiments directed towards the unvaccinated can be considered a form of scapegoating.
“My colleagues and I have been studying the social divisions surrounding COVID-19 for some time. We have noticed that much of the existing research at that time focused on conflicts originating from people who discount COVID-19, believe in conspiracy theories, and generally undervalue the threat of the virus. We replicated many of those patterns in our own research as well,” said study author Maja Graso, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen.
“However, what we found to be missing was an address to misinformation and the consequences stemming from overestimating the threat. Consider, for instance, how in 2020, more than 30% of Americans believed that a COVID infection led to a 50% chance of hospitalization; it never did, nor was there ever evidence to suggest it might. Left-leaning individuals tended to over-estimate COVID harms to a greater degree than conservatives.”
“Any miscalibration of risk may lead to inappropriate responses, misuse of resources, and social divisions, all of which can further compromise lives and livelihoods. Therefore, with this specific study, we wanted to see whether negative sentiments towards the unvaccinated could be in part explained by dismissing risk factors that would challenge the extent to which the unvaccinated are blamed.”
The research comprised two studies that utilized fictional characters with varying risk profiles and vaccination statuses to gauge public perceptions. In Study 1, participants were asked to evaluate four fictional characters: two low-risk individuals (Katy, 21, and Mark, 38, both without comorbidities) and two high-risk individuals (Mary, 78, with no comorbidities, and Richard, 53, with severe comorbidities).
The characters’ vaccination statuses were manipulated, with each character being either fully vaccinated, unvaccinated, or unvaccinated but having fully recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection. Participants rated the characters’ responsibility for various pandemic-related consequences and estimated their likelihood of hospitalization, death, and recovery.
The results of Study 1, based on 570 American residents, revealed that people were more likely to scapegoat the unvaccinated or unvaccinated-recovered characters compared to the vaccinated characters, regardless of the characters’ risk profiles. In particular, the participants believed that unvaccinated individuals were “responsible for overwhelmed healthcare systems,” “to be blamed for the effects of hospital staff shortages,” “at fault for C19 deaths and hospitalization, and “guilty of severely jeopardizing his/her community’s public health”
Participants also consistently overestimated the chances that low-risk characters would experience severe illness, death, or failure to recover from COVID-19, irrespective of their vaccination status. This suggests that the blame directed towards the unvaccinated may be disproportionate to their actual risk.
Moreover, the study found that liberals were more likely to scapegoat the unvaccinated characters, including those who were unvaccinated but had recovered from COVID-19. In contrast, conservatives were less likely to scapegoat all characters, regardless of their vaccination status.
In Study 2, participants evaluated a 28-year-old, low-risk male character who was either unvaccinated but had recovered from COVID-19 in May 2021 or had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in May 2021. The study aimed to determine if people were more likely to blame the unvaccinated character, even when compared to a vaccinated individual who had not received a booster shot. The same measures used in Study 1 were employed, with an extended scapegoating assessment.
The results of Study 2 indicated that people were more likely to blame the unvaccinated but recovered character. This finding aligned with the political ideology effects observed in Study 1, with liberals more inclined to scapegoat the unvaccinated-recovered character compared to conservatives.
“We were surprised to find that individuals consistently placed more blame on the unvaccinated, even under our most conservative scenario,” Graso told PsyPost. “This last scenario focused solely on a 28-year-old healthy man who works outdoors alone and has either recovered from COVID or got vaccinated more than 6 months ago without plans for a booster. Both characters, the recovered and vaccinated, are at low risk for hospitalization and are equally capable of spreading the virus. Yet, the unvaccinated but recovered character received more blame. Moreover, individuals who identified as liberal were more likely to blame the unvaccinated compared to their conservative counterparts.”
The findings of these two studies suggest that negative sentiments directed towards the unvaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic may indeed be a form of scapegoating rather than a justified response to a perceived public health threat.
“It conveys a classic, timeless message: people should be aware that good intentions can run awry,” Graso said. “We encourage everyone to consider that misinformation can come in many forms and from many sources. Just as undervaluing the threat can be damaging to public health, lives, and resources, vastly overestimating the COVID-19 threat can also create pressures that lead to poor policy decisions, diversion of resources, and unwarranted blame of individuals who may not be at fault.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. First, the findings may not necessarily generalize to populations outside of the United States or to samples with different political compositions. Second, the study’s conclusions are based on data collected in early 2022, and the dynamics surrounding COVID-19 and vaccination may have evolved since then. Additionally, the research focused on scapegoating judgments and did not assess actual behavior towards unvaccinated individuals.
“We focused solely on individuals’ general and low-level perceptions of blame,” Graso noted. “We did not examine the more severe sentiments that have occasionally been prominent in the media. There is much more research that needs to be done on risk misperceptions that stem from both under-estimating health threats, but also severely over-estimating them.”
“Our own ‘political tribe’ can also be a source of misinformation, yet we may be less adept at recognizing it,” the researcher added.
The study, “Blaming the unvaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic: the roles of political ideology and risk perceptions in the USA“, was authored by Maja Graso, Karl Aquino, Fan Xuan Chen, and Kevin Bardosh.