The culture wars over vaccinating kids against Covid in the US have got so fierce that a Sesame Street character has been dragged into the fight.
Claudia Willams, narrating:
Hello, I’m Claudia – and this is the Sensemaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
Today: How this guy….
“Well Hello, I’m Big Bird. Who are you?”Big Bird, Sesame Street
… became a target in America’s vaccine wars.
The United States wants to give the Pfizer Covid vaccine to all children aged 5 to 11.
“The FDA has granted emergency use authorisation of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for younger children.”CBS News Philadelphia
“Late today. Pfizer’s mini dose of COVID vaccine for kids five to 11 years old. Got a thumbs up from a CDC adviser.”CBS News
Now, America is not the first country to start vaccinating young children. Others are doing it too.
Chile is vaccinating 6 to 11-year-olds.
In China, kids as young as 3 are eligible to get the jab.
But it is a big deal that the US health authorities have approved Pfizer for kids.
It means that their world-class experts have studied the vaccine, weighed up the dangers and concluded that the benefits – keeping children safe from Covid infection – far outweigh the risks of potential side effects.
Of course, even thinking about vaccinating kids is a massive privilege: a lot of countries around the world are really short on vaccines for adults who are at most risk, let alone children.
But for many American parents the FDA announcement is a relief.
“We do everything we can to protect our kids, but it’s been 600 long days. And, and things can start to come back to normal.”Father, Brian Giglio, NBC News
Although it’s true that children are less likely to get really ill with Covid, they are still at risk. Here are some of the numbers from the US:
“More than 2 million 5 to 1 year olds have had the virus, 8,300 have been hospitalised and 173 have died.”CBS News
Still, many mums and dads in the US are hesitant about getting their children vaccinated.
In a survey of parents with kids aged 5-11, 30 per cent said that they will “definitely not” get them vaccinated against Covid.
33 per cent said they would “wait and see” before deciding.
That’s where Big Bird comes in.
The Sesame Street characters have been enlisted to help reassure parents and kids about the Covid vaccine.
Big Bird appeared on CNN to ask his questions:
“Big Bird: You know, my granny bird says that since I’m six years old, I can get the vaccine.
Erin: That’s right. Big Bird,
Big Bird: But…well I have a lot of questions. What is a vaccine and does it have to be a shot and will I still need to wear my mask?”CNN
And after that, Big Bird took to Twitter to tell everyone that he’d had the jab.
But that Tweet ruffled feathers with some conservative politicians and commentators… including Republican Senator Ted Cruz:
“He called Big Bird’s Tweet, government propaganda for your five-year old. And he said a whole bunch of other stuff too. And then more Republicans attack the Sesame Street character.”CNN
So, why has a public health message become a political issue?
To answer that question, it’s worth looking at how the vaccination campaign has gone down with the adult population.
The majority of US adults are now vaccinated, but there are some groups that won’t get the shot. And when you look at who they are, some trends emerge.
According to a poll published in September, 40% of Republican voters – broadly, those on the right of the political spectrum – don’t intend to get vaccinated.
A different survey asked unvaccinated people: why not?
They give a few big reasons: they think the vaccine is too new, or they are worried about side effects.
Both of those fears are unfounded. The vaccine has been rigorously tested and side effects are very, very rare.
But perhaps the most interesting reason is this: they don’t want to get the vaccine because they don’t trust the government. They like neither the message nor the messenger.
And it seems to be the trust issue that people like Ted Cruz are exploiting.
Like many things in America, vaccine policy has become a partisan issue.
Some Republican voices, Ted Cruz included, say they are merely trying to protect people’s personal liberty.
They’ve objected to moves by the government to make vaccines compulsory for some workers.
They say the government shouldn’t be compelling people to make medical choices: it should be up to them whether they – or their children – take the vaccine.
Right now the responsibility to make that decision does indeed lie with parents, for the time being anyway.
One thing that could force parents’ hands would be if schools made it compulsory for kids to be vaccinated before coming to class. But experts say schools are unlikely to do that – at least not while the vaccine only has emergency-use approval.
But there is precedent if the government decides to make it compulsory. Bear in mind that all 50 states require children to get vaccinated against other illnesses like polio, measles and rubella.
So should Ted Cruz’s swipe at Big Bird be taken at face value or are more cynical calculations at play?
“This is a completely opportunistic dunk. Reinforced by so much of the conservative ecosystem that immediately took the bait to hate and immediately interpreted this as propaganda rather than just as an attempt to inform kids and calm parents and answer their questions.”CNN
To some, it looks as though he’s just trying to win attention.
After all, going after Big Bird was pretty much guaranteed to go viral.
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