• Sophia Wagner

The “Moral Calm” Surrounding COVID-19 Vaccinations for Children

On October 26, an expert committee advising the Food and Drug Administration recommended the authorization of administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children ages 5-11. The FDA took this advice, and on November 2, the CDC formally endorsed the Pfizer vaccine for younger children. According to Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, the program is expected to be fully running by the week of November 8. The program aims to administer the Pfizer vaccine to children twice, three weeks apart, and at ⅓ of the dosage given to individuals 12 and older.

Photo Courtesy: John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Despite the multiple meticulous trials the COVID-19 vaccine has gone through, statistics prove that many parents are still hesitant to vaccinate their children: only 46% of American adolescents aged 12-15 are fully vaccinated, as opposed to 61% of the adult population. This fact is troublesome because although adolescents and children have higher levels of antibodies than adults that prevent infection, they are still contracting COVID-19 at essentially the same rate. Alarmingly, the highest hospitalization rates for children ages 5-11 was in September, at the height of the Delta variant; a statistic which is further compounded by the fact that hospitalization rates for African American, Hispanic, and Native American children are three times as high as that for White children.


Even though the vaccine is proven to be safe, and there has been evidence that children are not immune to contracting COVID-19, only 27% of parents with children between the ages of 5 and 11 plan on vaccinating them. This statistic is shocking because parents widely accept vaccines for infectious diseases like polio, measles, and hepatitis B: 90% of children are vaccinated against them by age 2. In contrast to public opinion on widely accepted vaccinations, in regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, 76% of parents claim to be either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the long term side effects of the vaccine on their children, and 66% of parents express concerns that the vaccine could affect fertility. However, parents are not simply opting out of vaccinations for their children just because of their personal beliefs: the COVID-19 vaccine is significantly more politicized than other vaccines, which along with the rampant circulation of misinformation, helps explain the hesitancy of parents of all races and political affiliations feel.


Not only are parents skeptical of the vaccine and whether its benefits outweigh the risks, but they are also seemingly uninterested and indifferent about the vaccine itself, as a study on pandemic parenting by Jessica Calarco, a sociology professor at Indiana University, demonstrates. As a part of this study, an anonymous mother, who has vaccinated her children against all other infectious diseases, explains her indifference about COVID-19 vaccinations: “I just feel there’s almost no incentive at all to give [my child] the vaccine. Even if there was like no risk to it. It just seems why would we even get it for him?”


The apathy many parents, like this anonymous mother, have towards vaccinating their children is puzzling. Calarco explains that it may be because of a phenomenon entitled “moral calm.” The term “moral calm” was coined by Stanley Cohen, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, to be the opposite of moral panic. Calarco expands upon this idea, asserting that “moral calm is a situation in which we might expect widespread concern about some potentially harmful phenomenon but get the absence of fear instead.” Calarco attributes parent’s behavior of “moral calmness” in regards to vaccinating their children to two main reasons: (1) Early public health messaging from the CDC in April 2020, which stated that children are much less likely to contract COVID-19 and need hospitalization than adults, and (2) the idea of confirmation bias.


The CDC’s statement about children’s susceptibility to contracting COVID-19 was a product of the data collected at the time, albeit imperfect, and was most likely issued in order to assuage public fears about the virus. However, this initial statement ultimately works to prevent parents from understanding the necessity of vaccinating their children. As Calarco explains, confirmation bias holds that people are more likely to believe in what they already consider factual, even if new information surfaces that challenge their original beliefs. The confirmation bias parents have about COVID-19 vaccines being unnecessary for their children is bolstered by misinformation and Americans’ long-held beliefs in the supremacy of individual freedoms over collective action - a belief mainly held by conservative individuals.


Currently, the confluence of misinformation about vaccinations and conservative ideals of individual freedoms are creating mass public suspicion about not only COVID-19 but also the vaccines that are created to fight it. Eight states have banned mask mandates in schools, all of which, except Arizona, voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. This statistic is significant because conservative individuals are more likely to express hesitancy about getting vaccinated: primarily because the rampant misinformation about the pandemic usually originates on popular conservative media circles, such as QAnon. Individuals of all party affiliations can fall victim to misinformation, especially on the internet. However, the misinformation that many conservative individuals now consider fact bolsters their confirmation bias that the vaccine is unnecessary and undermines their liberties.


As these disillusioned individuals petition to end mask mandates in their children’s schools, their confirmation bias infiltrates more mainstream avenues and thereby contributes to the “moral calm” that the majority of parents have about COVID-19; evidenced, as mentioned earlier, by the fact that only 27% of parents wish to vaccinate their young children.


The effect of the “moral calm” phenomenon - created both by misinformation about the vaccine and a conservative appreciation of individual liberties above all else - on policy regarding COVID-19 safety protocols cannot be understated and has already affected parent’s ideas about vaccinating their children. The implications of this widespread apathy about COVID-19 vaccinations will likely have consequences for years to come unless parents can overcome that indifference and find “incentives” to start believing in agencies like the CDC and FDA.