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Jennifer Reich: Vaccine Refusal and Individualist Parenting

Recently, we all have the same thing on our minds: COVID-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus. And, rightfully so. The virus, which has already spread to at least 60 countries, infecting over 87,000 people and killing almost 3,000, is highly contagious and difficult to control. Most of us are already wondering, “When will the coronavirus vaccine be available?” But those often referred to as “anti-vaxxers,” or people who engage in vaccine refusal, may not plan to use the coronavirus vaccine. 

Jennfier Reich, a professor of Sociology at UC Denver, shared her research on the anti-vaxxer movement at TEDxMileHigh Imagine. Her research revealed a fascinating discovery about the way we conceptualize health as a society. Read on to learn how anti-vaxxers might be a symptom of a much larger challenge. 

Vaccine Refusal

When Reich started her project, she began by trying to understand why parents reject vaccines. She discovered that many anti-vaxxers harbor distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and the government. Others believe that as long as someone is healthy, they should be able to successfully fight off infectious diseases without the help of vaccines. 

But, Reich also discovered something she didn’t anticipate: a group of people working extra hard to create a bright and healthy life for their kids, and their kids only. Overwhelmingly, anti-vaxxers believed they were protecting their children from harm, without considering the impact their decision has on other children. When it comes to vaccines, opting out could impact more than just the person who refuses the vaccine. When did vaccines become a personal choice instead of a public necessity?

Individualistic Parenting

The anti-vaccination movement, Reich argues, is a symptom of a culture of individualistic parenting. From the time a woman is pregnant to the time their child goes to school, society tells mothers that the health and success of their child are up to them and their hard work. As a result, mothers are held responsible if anything bad happens to their children. 

If a child gets sick, receives bad grades, or acts out at school, somewhere along the way the mother did something wrong to cause this. Often, other mothers will scrutinize the choices other mothers make. 

Parents also actively compete against each other in order to secure that their child gets that coveted seat in the “good” school or lands a great job after college. Why don’t we look out for other people’s kids?

Societal Understanding of Health

Another cause of the anti-vax movement is how health is advertised to us in the media. As a society, we are convinced that health is a personal choice. If someone is healthy, it is because they have taken the necessary steps to get there. But if someone is sick, Reich explains, “We almost always wonder what they did or failed to do that led to this disease.” 

This understanding of health neglects that the majority of disease is, according to Reich, “beyond individual control.” Diseases are often genetic, environmental, or the result of bad luck. Our thinking around health, however, does not reflect this. 

“We act like if we just work hard enough and make all the right decisions, we’ll stay healthy.” – Jennifer Reich

These two trends tell us that our personal choice leads to both the success of our children and whether or not we get sick. Because of this, Reich believes, “It’s no wonder that some mothers increasingly see vaccines as a personal choice that’s part of a broader personalized strategy for their own children.”

According to Reich, vaccines should not be understood as a personal choice, but as a public good. 

Dismantle Individualist Parenting

This culture of individualism that leads to vaccine refusal, Reich believes, plagues our society in other ways. It means that people don’t fight for access to clean water if their own kids have clean water. (Consider the story of drinking water in Flint Michigan.) It means if someone’s kids have access to healthy food, they don’t care if other kids do not. It means if someone’s kids are in a great charter school, they don’t care if their public school is failing.

People are taking on the responsibility of safety and wellbeing themselves, instead of advocating for the safety and wellbeing of all. As a result, America overall is struggling in key quality of life metrics when compared to other countries, such as metrics for safety and trust.

“All of these problems could be solved if parents just stood up for each other, and said, ‘not my kid, and not your kid either.’” – Jennifer Reich

Reich believes it is time to dismantle this “culture of individualist parenting.” The first step? Stop blaming people for everything that happens, especially when it is something out of their control. When someone’s child is sick, do not automatically assume that the mother is to blame. When a child is acting out in a grocery store, don’t automatically assume the mother is a bad parent. Encourage and support the mothers around you. 

According to Reich, “When we begin to act like we’re invested in everyone’s families, other families will become invested in ours.” While this won’t solve the problem of vaccine refusal, creating a “culture of public investment in each other’s health” will strengthen our communities and allow everyone—not just our children—to thrive. 

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