The United States has the distinction of being the richest country in the world, and yet we have the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Nearly 59 million Americans have contracted the disease, and more than 837,000 have died from it.
Given the wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccination here and the vast number of people who have succumbed to the disease, one would think that the U.S. would be among the leaders in vaccination rates. Not so.
The latest data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Center show that 63.1% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated with at least two doses. The U.S. ranks behind 58 other countries on this statistic. These 58 nations include nine countries to our south: Chile (87.5%), Cuba (85.4%), Uruguay (77.3%), Argentina (73.6%), Ecuador (72.4%), Costa Rica (70.3%), Brazil (68.2%), Peru (66.4%) and El Salvador (64.5%). And Panama with a rate of 58.3% and Mexico at 57.1% are not far behind the U.S.
These 11 Latin American countries are far poorer and arguably less organized than the U.S. but have lost many fewer lives to COVID-19.
Mexico opened registrations for COVID-19 vaccines to the entire population over the age of 18 in July. And now Mexico has a higher vaccination rate than 18 U.S. states, with 10 of these in the South, four in the Midwest and four in the West. Idaho (47.6%), (42.2%) and Mississippi (48.8%) have the nation’s lowest vaccination rates.
Several sociocultural factors contribute to the higher vaccination rates in many Latin American nations, but what stands out is the cooperation among all age groups in complying with mitigation strategies — wearing masks, social distancing, getting vaccines, and washing hands frequently and surfaces daily. Beginning in September, for example, Uruguay provided inoculation in the workplace to facilitate easy access during employees’ working hours. The prevention efforts are viewed as a social responsibility. This is not what is happening here.
In addition, the Catholic Church leadership, a salient institution in Mexico, launched a public health campaign to reinforce the basics of staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting vaccination compliance. That has helped Mexico. This is going on in the U.S. to a certain extent. For example, a coalition of 28 U.S. Catholic organizations mobilized efforts to accept vaccines and promote equitable distribution of vaccines for the underserved and among communities of color. But this is a small effort compared with those happening elsewhere.
The reasons so many Americans less than 65 years of age have refused to get vaccinated are varied, but politics is a major dividing line. Seventeen of the 18 states that have lower vaccination rates than Mexico are predominantly red states. And it seems that people who have not received the vaccination have dug their heels in the ground with little movement.
Any use of mandates puts federalism to the test. The public sector has confronted numerous challenges, including obstinate employees, resulting in limited success. As such, the private sector needs to work alongside the public sector in the establishment of mandates requiring employees to be vaccinated with appropriate exceptions. A safe and healthy workplace is essential to establish a sense of security that is currently missing.
Achieving this goal will require acting on President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 initiatives that spur business and protect the nation’s health. As six former members of the president’s COVID-19 advisory board recently pointed out, we also need to embrace the “new normal,” conceding the stark reality that we will never get 100% of the population vaccinated or defeat the virus.
Furthermore, it is critical to extend the series of business roundtables convened by strategic partnership in the corporate and nonprofit sectors such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, industry groups and leaders of communities of color. These groups would identify new financial incentives to help reduce barriers and encourage vaccinations.
We are all in this together. Being adaptive is surely well worth the cost given what is at stake.
Jacqueline Angel is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
Rogelio Sáenz is a professor in the Department of Demography at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.