“The Enigma of Stigma”

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The Story

“The Enigma of Stigma”
by Simar Bajaj
Tarbell, February 28, 2022

The Pitch

The Enigma of Stigma

Where NICU nurse Donna Schmidt works, the earsplitting shrill of alarm bells is only sometimes drowned out by the tears of dying patients sobbing for help. Since the beginning, Schmidt has been fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic, but her biggest battle started on August 26th—when New York State implemented its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Schmidt, the founder of New Yorkers Against Medical Mandates, is unvaccinated and proud. In her fifties, Schmidt looks like an oddly intense substitute art teacher with her messy bun tucked behind a tribal-patterned headband. What does she think about attempts to stigmatize the unvaccinated and get her tribe vaccinated? “Medical rape,” said Schmidt.

Over the past few months, the White House has increasingly stepped up a stigma campaign against the unvaccinated: the unvaccinated are going to cause “a winter of severe illness and death,” President Biden recently warned, “for themselves, their families, and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.” Following the Omicron variant’s rampage, stigma might represent a potent public health tool to roundhouse kick the recalcitrant few into their senses. Or it might do the exact opposite, entrenching the unvaccinated in their identity and beliefs, estranging them further from public health. A piece exploring the uses of stigma in public health could help shape federal policy when vaccinating the unvaccinated has become a national priority.

Along the ride, we’ll meet a Rabbi who believes stigma is “the most widespread, most egregious human rights abuse in history,” investigate the White House’s tortuous deliberations around an organized stigma campaign, and stop in 1793 Philadelphia during the city’s deeply politicized Yellow Fever Epidemic. Considering the case studies of smoking and HIV, we’ll also learn how stigma can become either a resounding success or an abject failure and whether politicians and public health leaders should be doing more to stigmatize the unvaccinated. With recent Supreme Court decisions on vaccine mandates and Americans losing their jobs because of anti-vaccine dogma (Schmidt was just terminated), I plan to unpack the history, anthropology, and psychology of stigma in public health, as well as examine what alternatives exist for getting Americans vaccinated.

I went into this project assuming it made sense to stigmatize anti-vaxxers—it worked, after all, with smoking and littering, didn’t it?—and yet by the end, I’ve come to a very different and surprising conclusion.

My essays have appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and Nature Medicine. I would be happy to send along other writing samples, answer any questions, or follow up by phone. Many thanks, and I hope to hear from you soon.

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