The hot vaxxed summer many Americans are just beginning to enjoy has the eerie air of a horror movie ending. With the delta variant threatening to wreak havoc on unvaccinated U.S. masses, and the goal of 70% of the population with at least one shot by July 4 apparently out of reach, our victory dance seems premature—as though the camera could pan just to the left of our cathartic survivors’ celebration at any moment to reveal the thwarted killer’s eyes popping open.
Hell, we never even really thwarted the killer in the first place.
What’s incredible about this lingering danger, however, is that it is now fully a product of the peoples’ will. Despite the fact that vaccines are in such abundance in America that we’re attracting inoculation tourists from around the world, a pivotal bloc of citizens remains immune to the siren song of safe harbor from the novel coronavirus. Somehow, neither appeals to a sense of civic duty nor the promise of a return to normalcy have been able to inspire America’s vaccine holdouts. (What does “a return to normalcy” look like if you refused to wear masks in the first place?)
At this point, as silly as it may seem on the surface, bribing the resisters into taking their shots may be our last, best hope at getting to herd immunity—even as the bribing lays bare much of what else ails America.
NEW: We’re launching our “Shot and a Beer” program to encourage eligible New Jerseyans ages 21+ to get vaccinated.
Any New Jerseyan who gets their first vaccine dose in the month of May and takes their vaccination card to a participating brewery will receive a free beer. ???? pic.twitter.com/REiHTEa6mi
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) May 3, 2021
The vaccine holdouts are animated by all manner of reasons, none of them very compelling: general anti-vaxxers who don’t believe in inoculation of any kind; MAGA dead-enders who believe the threat of COVID-19 was an exaggerated lie designed to take down Your Favorite President; far-right media consumers who wonder if the vaccine has killed more people than it’s saved; uninformed optimists who hope enough total vaccinations will make them immune by osmosis; terminal contrarians who are “just asking questions”; and people with any number of other justifications for dodging their dosages.
Convincing someone to overlook these beliefs or affiliations for the greater good, by talking one-on-one, is often an act of folly. Doing so on a grand scale, using pop-up ads and billboards, is even more so; like bringing spitballs to an ideological gun fight. When appealing to people’s better nature fails, however, there’s always the option of appealing to people’s base nature.
Hence the bribes.
There now seem to be about as many kinds of vaccine bribes available as there are vaccine-hesitaters, but it all started with Krispy Kreme. Back in March, the famously fragrant donut-makers announced it would be giving away a donut-a-day for the remainder of 2021 to anyone who could prove they’d been vaccinated. Many took them up on the offer. As of June 1, Krispy Kreme had reportedly given away 1.5 million donuts to inoculated patrons. It is impossible to know just how many of those donut-munchers got vaccinated explicitly to get a sugar mustache every day, at least without extensive surveying. But even if it was only 1,000 people, that’s still a big help. The fact that giving away free donuts also brought in a ton of publicity for Krispy Kreme did not go unnoticed either.
What followed was a stampede of corporate giveaways, state lotteries, and odd-bedfellow partnerships like the one between the White House and several dating apps, the latter of which now add vaccination badges and fringe benefits to users’ profiles. (“According to research from OKCupid, people who are vaccinated or plan to get vaccinated receive 14% more Matches than people who don’t plan to get vaccinated,” a statement announcing the partnership read. Yes, the U.S. government wants mingle-ready singles to know that getting vaxxed will help them get laid.)
If the goal was to make the vaccine-resistant feel courted by many suitors, both literally and figuratively: mission accomplished. By now, all remaining untapped biceps find themselves in a buyer’s market. Imagine walking through the Mall of America, with one sleeve rolled tantalizingly up to the shoulder, as carnival barkers in each storefront shout out what’s on offer for the price of two little pricks. Step right up, free Lollapalooza and Six Flags tickets for Illinois residents. Hurry, hurry, get your scratch-off tickets and other giveaways in New York City. Wanna get lit? How about some free beer, courtesy of your friends at Anheuser-Busch, or some legal weed from the legalize weed movement—and what goes better with free weed and beer than Taco Bell tacos, and a free ride home from your favorite Lyft driver, President Biden? If none of that sounds quite enticing enough, how about potentially $1.5 million?
Despite some similar bribes being offered in places like Dubai, there is something so uniquely American about this phase of this country’s pandemic response. A moment in which corporations and the U.S. government compete to outdo each other with dazzling giveaways, turning needle-shy naysayers into vaccine debutantes, belongs in a museum tableau entitled Late Capitalism. The fact that there’s even a chance someone wouldn’t get vaccinated just because it’s the right thing to do—but might be motivated by free Girl Scout cookies—proves the puddle-deep nature of the convictions keeping the country from herd immunity.
Perhaps this curse is also a gift, though. The same thing that makes America the kind of place that needs vaccination bribes also makes it the kind of place where those bribes might work.
Bribes create a permission structure for people bound by loyalty to the last president or their peer group or contrarianism against vaccination. All these incoming offers force the holdouts to have skin in the game. By not getting vaccinated, they are now leaving money on the table, in addition to that whole “immunity from COVID-19” nonsense. Making these offers even more appealing is the fact that, technically, no one has to find out that you actually got vaccinated in order to get a free gun. (Winning $1.5 million, though, would be significantly more challenging to keep secret than a box of Thin Mints.)
And if a noted skeptic were to get “caught” giving in to the Vaccine Bribe Industrial Complex, so what? It’s something that can easily be reframed into getting one over on the elites. Even just a beer or a joint, courtesy of Uncle Sam, would mean coming out on top of this whole vaccine deal, unlike all those other saps who couldn’t wait to get the Fauci Ouchie for free. It’s not as though quietly accepting a vaccine bribe also requires thinking more critically about the push against Critical Race Theory, or wishing more people could vote. And as a bonus, uh, you’re also inoculated. For whatever that’s worth.
If there were no other reason to suspect the bribes are effective, a good starting point is by noting that the New York Post, which has intentionally and consistently spread misinformation about vaccines, is against them. Fortunately, there are further reasons to believe. Ohio’s Vax-a-Million lottery, for instance, which began back in early May, ended up increasing lagging vaccination rates across the entire state. At the very least, there’s no world in which the offering of incentives somehow results in fewer vaccinations.
Thus far, bribes have been the greatest way to separate those who aren’t vaxxing out of genuine conviction or fear from those who are merely posturing out of alliances, either social or political. All that tinfoil-hat talk of Bill Gates-made microchips and 5G has a way of evaporating upon the possibility of tangible personal benefits. Over time, these inducements just might be what tips the country over into herd immunity, at which point we will have not only thwarted the killer from the horror movie of the past 15 months, but cremated the killer and scattered their ashes at sea.
Only in America, however, would competing machete and camp equipment giveaways be what motivates a slasher flick Final Girl to survive.