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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: A Vaccine Deal North Carolina Shouldn't Have to Make

Erin Keever

Look, I understand the power of a good incentive. I’ve gone to a ball game on a weeknight just to get the giveaway T-shirt. I’ll volunteer to head to Costco so I can try the food samples. Back in the day, our family collected Green Stamps. I’m all about a good deal.

But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is cutting a deal with our citizens that he should’ve never had to make. He’s paying people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

A pilot program in four counties, including Mecklenburg, is giving people a $25 gift card to get vaccinated. You can also get a $25 card for driving someone to their appointment. That pilot program is set to end this week, but it’s been successful enough that Cooper is likely to roll out some sort of incentive program statewide.

Four states have created lotteries for people who get vaccinated, and Ohio has already paid out a million bucks to its lottery winner. Other states are offering everything from theme-park tickets to college scholarships.

And that’s on top of all the private businesses offering all kinds of freebies – more often than not, free beer. Few things unite Americans as much as free beer.

It’s an entertaining story, not to mention a commentary of sorts on our economic system. To make a variation on the old joke: We know what we are – now we’re just haggling over the price.

But underneath all that is a more serious reality.

In North Carolina, where every adult can now get a vaccine, barely over half of our adults have gotten even one shot. Only half are fully vaccinated.

There are some people who can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons. There are others who have a hard time getting to a vaccine site. And there are still others who have suspicions about the vaccine, some for legitimate historical reasons, others for less legitimate reasons, as in something they read on Facebook.

Let’s be generous and give credit to everyone who’s wary. But that doesn’t cover everybody. There’s some percentage of people who haven’t gotten the vaccine because they just don’t want to.

There are a lot of things that, as a citizen, I don’t want to do. I’d just as soon not pay my taxes. I’d rather not have to buy a fishing license.

Those things are all bound by law. But we have other obligations to one another, less formal but just as important. Don’t look over someone’s shoulder at the ATM. If the line at the grocery store says 12 items or less, don’t walk up there with 15.

One of the things we call people who violate those informal rules is selfish. And I have to say, I feel like there are some selfish people out there when it comes to the vaccine. They’re not getting it to make some political point, or even worse, because they just don’t care that much about their fellow human beings. Because that, at its core, is what the vaccine is about – not just protecting ourselves from getting sick, but protecting other people, too.

The last few years have made me believe we’re running an empathy deficit. Many folks have drifted so far away from basic decency that they simply can’t see themselves in anyone’s shoes but their own.

We can’t force everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But if there were a vaccine that gave people more empathy, I’d make it mandatory.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Updated: June 7, 2021 at 8:03 AM EDT
This was updated to clarify that 50% of North Carolina residents were fully vaccinated as of June 4.
Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.