How is Obamacare like eating broccoli? Or how is a virtuoso violinist like an unplanned pregnancy? If you’ve taken a philosophy class or studied Supreme Court cases, you’ve heard famous analogies like these. There’s an august history of moral reasoning by metaphor and analogy. We do this when presented with a new moral question or when trying to reframe an old one.
During the battle against COVID-19, we’ve compared the pandemic to natural disasters like wildfires and societal disasters like war. (We can slip the metaphor “battle” in there without even thinking about it, as I just did.) We’ve also compared it to past pandemics and other, more familiar infectious diseases, with surprisingly little effect on Covid skeptics.
In the ongoing push to persuade the vaccine-hesitant, both sides have tried out analogies for vaccines. Some of those opposed to vaccination campaigns have grotesquely compared vaccine certifications to anti-Semitic gold-star badges or other fascist methods of social control. Meanwhile, proponents of vaccination have compared vaccines to mandatory seat belts in cars—not the worst analogy, perhaps, but not the best either.
Andy Slavitt, the former White House Senior Advisor for Covid response, recently described the vaccine as an “umbrella” during a rainstorm: yes, the vaccinated will get a little bit wet, but they’ll stay mostly dry. Developing his metaphor, Slavitt says the Delta variant is like a more powerful storm, with “the slanty kind” of rain—you’d still rather have an umbrella, right? The storm analogy helps to dramatize the all-encompassing and dynamic nature of the pandemic, but the umbrella analogy captures only the self-protective aspect of vaccination. My umbrella doesn’t help everyone in my community stay dry, just as my seat belt doesn’t make a dangerous intersection safer. To overcome vaccination hesitancy, public-health officials need better analogies—ones that help us see vaccination as a kind of collective action.
In my own attempts to persuade vaccine skeptics, I’ve found that one of the main obstacles is the basic idea of limiting one’s freedoms for the common good. I often discuss this category of moral reasoning with students in my courses on religion and politics. I’ve also encountered deep distrust of government mandates. But people tend to have more trust in government the closer it is to home: village, town, county. As an elected official to municipal office, I’ve often been amazed to learn how many little regulations we have for public health and safety.
This summer, while trying to come up with more persuasive imagery for epidemiology and vaccination, I’ve played around with the analogy to public swimming pools. We have all kinds of rules at public pools—appropriate dress, walking instead of running, and not entering the pool with open wounds. Also, you can’t poop in it. We accept these rules without hesitation. We understand without difficulty that if someone’s body is emitting something potentially harmful to you, you don’t want to swim around in it.