If there’s one video that’s been my guiding light in these weird in-between times, it’s this one, of Gurdeep Pandher, of the Yukon, dancing on a frozen lake after getting his COVID-19 vaccine. Pandher, a popularizer of Bhangra (a traditional dance of Punjab), attached the gleeful video to a tweet hoping for “joy, hope, and positivity, which I’m forwarding across Canada and beyond for everyone’s health and wellbeing.”
Yes, vax-positive culture is here, and while I have a hard time feeling like any kind of public optimism is totally pure and good—years of slowly realizing how toxic American positivity can be will do that to a person—I simply cannot consume enough. The #GetTheShot hashtag on Twitter is a good source for a hit. “Abuelo on the left. Dad on the right. 2nd shot for both. More family up next. My relief and joy is indescribable,” one person using the hashtag wrote.
White House senior adviser for COVID response Andy Slavitt shared a thread of people’s texts to him, describing their emotions after getting the shot. “I kept humming ‘Here Comes The Sun’ while waiting the 15 minutes post shot because I feel like there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel,” one read. Then there’s the “after we get the vaccine” meme, where you attach the phrase “me and the girls/boys after we get the vaccine” to any number of idyllic, ridiculous, or pornographic scenes—anything, so long as there are lots of people together.
Online vaccine positivity, which you can see in memes, tweets, and videos, is a huge departure from previous pro-vax culture. In this, as in so many things, the strange circumstances of COVID have created something new. Before COVID, promoting vaccination had mostly been the government’s (and nonprofits’) job. And it’s been a hard one, because vaccination has mostly been about maintaining the measles-free, polio-free, pertussis-free status quo we’ve gotten very accustomed to enjoying. “That’s the problem with vaccines. When they work, absolutely nothing happens. Nothing,” Paul Offit, a doctor and vaccine educator, writes about the difficulty of his job.
Past vaccine promotion has often relied on negative emotions—guilt, blame, scorn. I think of the World Health Organization’s 1975 poster, “Immunize and Protect Your Child,” a comic that depicted the sad fate of a woman who refuses immunization, and then begs for it after an epidemic strikes, and her child gets sick. (“Is it too late to vaccinate?” the mother begs the health worker in the second to last frame, her baby lying in a tiny bed at her feet. “Yes, it is,” says the health worker, leaving the room; the mother crouches by the bed, in tears.) Reading about the rubella vaccine’s introduction in the late 1960s, I came across a completely wild document, a comic book produced by the March of Dimes that tried to guilt children into taking the vaccine to protect their unborn siblings and cousins.
Another approach, which also shows how hard it can be to depict the freedom that vaccination provides, is to go cute: posters with babies on them that say “Stop Measles With Just One Shot.” That’s anodyne, at best, and forgettable at worst.
Before COVID, organically generated online pro-vax culture—the stuff that comes from people, not organizations—was mostly about yelling. In a 2019 analysis of pro- and anti-vax memes, researchers found a high degree of sarcasm in the pro-vax examples. You can imagine what this looks like on the individual level: low-level misogynistic and definitely mean, in the way of a lot of pro-science online culture tends to go. Here’s a Pinterest board full of pro-vax memes, titled “Vaccinate Your Kids, You Idiots,” which contains some gems of the “Vaccinate your crotch goblins!” variety: A polar bear picture with the text “Just because a baby crawled out of you doesn’t mean a Ph.D. did” superimposed on it; a photo of Samuel L. Jackson with a gun pointed at a man’s head, and the text: “Say ‘Toxins in Vaccines’ Again.”
These rants about the foolishness of anti-vaxxers are cathartic, but probably not productive. In his book of advice for pro-vaxxers who want to talk to anti-vaxxers, which was written before the COVID pandemic, Jonathan Berman writes that the “reactive strategy” of mocking or arguing with anti-vaxxers on the internet “is the least effective” in shifting their mindset. “The strategy can backfire,” he writes, “resulting in more entrenched views and damaged family relationships.” Neither does filling in perceived information deficits work all that well on those who are dug in deep; they also believe they have “done the research.” What does work are community-based strategies, “based on showing those with doubts that others in their community are vaccinating their children.” These have been used locally after measles outbreaks in undervaccinated places and have helped a lot to improve vaccination rates.
And so I’ll bear with the occasional too-much-ness of everyone’s COVID vaccination celebration selfies and videos, because I think that’s exactly what all this yay-vax culture is doing—celebrating something we’re doing for one another, and making it real. Last week, Dolly Parton gave us a video of her getting the vaccine, then singing “Vaccine, vaccine,” to the tune of her iconic song “Jolene.” Carole King hopped on the bandwagon with a vax-updated version of “It’s Too Late,” and the Guardian speculated about other hits that could be repurposed: The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” (“Twenty, twenty, twenty four hours to go. I wanna be vaccinated!”); Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Jamming” (“We’re jabbing, we’re jabbing, we’re jabbing … I hope you like jabbing too”). Part of me wails Please, stop; another part of me sighs and puts critique away for another day.
I do still have standards. No thank you to Meena Harris’ Phenomenal Woman lifestyle brand selling $52 Dr. Fauci mugs, and to this pharma company–celebrating T-shirt, because I have not totally lost my mind. But generally, please keep on making your videos, and dance your happiness, and share it. Definitely get a phone out to record your vaccinated hugs, the first time you get to see your parents and your kids see their grandparents. That’s pro-vax of the best kind, the kind that says: I did this for me, and for you. No judgments. Join us.