The Pfizer vaccine, along with its likely successors, is a very good thing for the U.S. and the world. Yet it’s also likely to reshape America in some unsettling ways, segregating society more tightly into rational and irrational responders, especially in the short run.

The first issue will be how Americans respond over the course of the next few months. Simple logic suggests that when a good vaccine is pending, you should play it much safer. Instead of putting off that vacation indefinitely, just wait until you are vaccinated, possibly as soon as next summer. In theory that should be an easier adjustment to make, as indicated by what economists call “intertemporal substitution”: waiting for a short time is easier and less costly than waiting for a long time.

Many people will behave in such a rational fashion. But many will instead take more risk. As the prospect of a post-COVID America becomes more vivid, the temptations of going out and socializing now will become more powerful. Once people start thinking about the imminent prospect of partying and fine dining, they might find it harder to resist the idea of just going ahead with it now, despite the higher risk. The giddiness occasioned by a vaccine might have some counterintuitive and negative effects.

Of course, some truly rational and forward-looking people will realize that some of their friends and contacts will behave in this less responsible manner. The more rational among us will take greater care to avoid those whom they do not trust, as well as those who have front-line service jobs and thus cannot avoid contact with these less responsible individuals. The rationalists will cocoon themselves more, most of all from strangers and known irrationalists.

Another possibility is that norms of social scorn will weaken, and confusion will reign for a while. Currently, if you shop without a mask or hog the middle of the jogging path in the park, you will be asked to leave or be given dirty looks. These are healthy social reactions that help to keep the virus under control.

Will that remain the case once 10 percent or 20 percent of the population has been vaccinated? Furthermore, by then a higher percentage of the population already will have had COVID-19. You could imagine that, by February or March, 30 to 40 percent of the American population either will have had COVID (a form of vaccination in fact, albeit a dangerous one), or have received a proper vaccine. Many of them will take off their masks in public spaces.

Will you still be so inclined to give non-mask-wearers dirty looks? Their behavior might be just fine and pose no risk to others or you. And the vaccinated will themselves be less likely to give dirty looks to other non-mask-wearers, because they will not personally feel so threatened.

In other words, some highly useful norms may end up weaker during the transition phase. People who remain unvaccinated and vulnerable may temporarily face higher rather than lower risks.

Or what if three vaccinated family members or friends propose going to a movie with a fourth unvaccinated person? Will she so readily say no? The possibility of such situations — the fear of the unknown — will make rational, unvaccinated people all the more determined to limit their social interactions, at least for a while.

These forms of segregation will be reinforced by the economics of the vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine requires extreme cold storage at about minus 70 degrees Celsius. Many rural hospitals cannot afford that expense, and so many communities will receive the vaccine much more slowly. COVID-19 might persist as a largely rural phenomenon.

Or how about colleges and universities? Students should be back on campus by the fall semester, and they will demand that all students and faculty and staff be vaccinated — and they may also help supply the vaccine. Thus a vaccine divide will form between educated and non-educated young Americans. And given that no vaccine is likely to prove 100 percent effective, many educated Americans will remain risk-averse and avoid contact with rural, lower-income, less-educated Americans.

It almost goes without saying, of course, that a partially vaccinated population is far better than no vaccine at all. So celebration is entirely appropriate. But along the way we are going to face a new set of problems, and now is the time to start thinking about them.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

(10) comments

threecents

The fact that these vaccines appear to be close to 100% protective changes all the projections. They say that by the end of May everyone in the US who wants to be vaccinated will have had the opportunity, so everything should be able to open up completely in June. (It is projected that by the end of January all senior citizens will have had the opportunity to get vaccinated.) Other than vaccine safety and storage temperature, the other issues are how long the vaccines protects, what percent of the world gets vaccinated, and whether the virus spike protein gene eventually mutates enough to evade vaccine protection, much like the influenza H and N genes mutate.

gary4books

Those who wanted "business as usual" or a quick "return to normal" usually justified their positions by saying "we can not lock down forever." Now with a schedule in sight, and even a prospect for it to be sooner than later, they may have a reason to be cautious right now. However, our most popular response will still be "Yes, but..."

With a new President on the way in January others were saying "now the grand forever lockdown will.." and the prospects are that it will never happen. Some careful steps now might save us that bother.

Dwasserba

A whole family in Phila is quarrantined w covid because our niece is a respiratory therapist. She infected her husband and baby before she realized, so a fireman is quarrantined too. The household has other small children, one that endured cancer treatment and survived. In Phila health workers are so scarce they report to work if symptomless. I think a simple tattoo on the forehead for anyone opting out of vaccination will suffice.

bosco

Revelation 13:16-17

King James Version

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

Just sayin'. [beam][lol][beam][lol][ninja]

TomWheatley

A mark or ID for everyone across the nation for getting the vaccine. Or toss GPS on everyone. And I thought the Patriot Act was overbearing.

bosco

Maybe an implanted chip right behind one ear. It could be read with scanners and if you have the vaccine chip you are welcome to come in and dine, drink, exercise, sing, shop, whatever. No vaccination chip, wear your mask and stay away.[wink][ninja]

Greg F

A vaccine may be X% effective, but it is not an iron-clad guarantee you won't get sick or have some effect from it...such as minimizing its effects vs full blown COVID. It would be prudent to require the vaccine to return to work spaces and schools. Many IDs carry the capacity to be activated or deactivated based on vaccine status once you decide to return. A card of sorts could also be issued upon completion of the doses so travel would be better handled and those who have not can be addressed to continue wearing PPP until there is that "herd" immunity. Right now there's a lot of group-think from those who think they're immune and science doesn't know what they're doing. Thanks Trump. Thanks Rand Paul..and those idiots like him that all seem to reside on the conservative side. Thanks to the families who continue to go to Wal-Mart without masks or any regard for distancing. You really do deserve the divisiveness you bring upon yourself. You want everything, but don't want to pay the price to get it...including safety for you or others. So...don't want to get the vaccine...I really don't care if you are sorted out, do you?

NewMarketParent

@Greg F

I think proof of vaccination should be the real requirement to enter private businesses in public spaces. The primary reason we are hitting another wave right now is that many of our citizens cannot be trusted to listen to science and behave responsibly. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I, myself do not like the idea of having to hunker down for any longer than the minimum to ensure that I and my fellow countrymen are safe from killing each other. That requires my countrymen to act in good faith and do the same.

gary4books

New Market = Exactly right. People need to act responsibly.

Brookhawk

Proof of vaccination in order to go out in public? No, I don't think so. Masking up should be an alternative, especially since rolling out vaccinations is going to take a while, to see how well they protect and how long they last will take a while. Just two years ago I got my flu vaccine but it turned out a different strand of flu hit and I got the flu anyway. Vaccines are not cures. They are not infallible, and not everyone will be able to get one as easily as we've been able to get flu shots (except of course one year the supply ran out, remember? You don't think supply will be a problem with COVID vaccine?)

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