What’s the Proper Metaphor for the Covid Vaccine?

I find vaccination like fighting a wildfire.

For The Atlantic, Katherine Wu writes about the difficulty of communicating how vaccines work and how they protect individuals and communities from disease: Vaccines Are Like Sunscreen… No, Wait, Airbags… No, Wait…

Unfortunately, communal benefit is harder to define, harder to quantify, and harder to describe than individual protection, because “it’s not the way Americans are used to thinking about things,” Neil Lewis, a behavioral scientist and communications expert at Cornell, told me. That’s in part because communal risk isn’t characteristic of the health perils people in wealthy countries are accustomed to facing: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. Maybe that’s part of why we gravitate toward individual-focused comparisons. Slipping into a pandemic-compatible, population-based frame of mind is a big shift. In the age of COVID-19, “there’s been a lot of focus on the individual,” Lewis told me. That’s pretty at odds “with how infection works.”

As someone who has struggled with analogizing the virus & vaccines, I was nodding my head a lot while reading this.


Many people live a life of metaphor and rules of thumb. Thinking deeply just takes too much time and energy.

There are a lot of metaphors that work. Why do we fight forest fires as a community? Because it saves the homes of our neighbors, which could save our own. It prevents innocent lives from being lost.. It allows the community to survive. It protects the environment (ie smoke) and saves animals. And it is simply something that cannot be fought alone.

In a wildfire, the ones who survive are those who follow the advice of experts and let the experts do what they have been trained to do. What do we call people who refuse to evacuate, stay home with a hose to fight a wild fire that eventually burns every home to the ground?


But when we fight a fire as a community, we save people and homes. Whether by a bucket brigade, a volunteer fire department or expert fire jumpers. communities fight fires. And we fight pandemics similarly.

Vaccination dampens the wildfire of disease spreading through a community.No one really says “Just let the wild fire burn itself out.” We know many people will die, lives will be forever altered and entire communities destroyed. Yet many people say the same thing about vaccination. They are perfectly willing to see people die, lives forever altered and communities destroyed.

Now we use a variety of tools to fight forest fires, from people on the ground digging fire breaks to aerial fighters dropping flame retardant. If a fire gets too big, it simply cannot be contained and becomes a wildfire destroying everything. The goal is to contain it, stop it from spreading.Sometimes we will even set controlled fires to rob the wildfire of fuel. There may be lots of fuel just a short distance away but the fire can’t grow. Fighting fire with fire.

Unless a spark makes it across the fire break, finding new fuel and starting its growth again. If we break it up into smaller pieces, prevent each piece from spreading, keep it contained, we eventually stop the fire. It has burnt all the fuel it cam find and we prevent it from finding more.

A pandemic is similar. Starting small, it can be contained with the right tools. Healthcare professionals are the fire fighters trying to put out small fire, isolating the infected so they do not spread the virus. Masks and social distancing act to isolate the virus, making its spread harder. When the spread gets too large, vaccines become necessary to isolate the virus. They are the fire breaks that stop the spread.

Like controlled fires, vaccines rob the virus of the fuel it needs to keep spreading. Immunized people do not spread the virus very rapidly. The virus simply cannot find people it can infect. The pandemic peters out, just as a wildfire does when it cannot find fuel.

This is what nerd immunity accomplishes.

But the unvaccinated still remain as possible ‘fuel’ sources if a virus can bridge the isolating gap that vaccines provide. Then the wildfire starts up again. And in the real world, there will always be groups of unvaccinated (ie children under 12). Vaccination protects them by preventing the virus from easily finding them, just as fighting wildfires protects those communities that cannot protect themselves.

A wildfire will only burn itself out if it eventually runs out of fuel it can access or we provide barriers to that access. If we do the latter, we can save the homes of many people, not just our own. We can maintain the entire community. In a wildfire, people are often more concerned for saving the communities, and put their lives at risk to do so. Selfish behavior harms us all.

Vaccination does something similar. Without vaccination, the virus has access to everyone, doing harm to us all. But vaccination not only protects us as individuals. It protects the community as there is less and less fuel for the virus to spread.

Refusing to be vaccinated is ultimately a very selfish act. It will not protect the individual from illness and, more importantly, it does not help protect the innocent or the weak. It permits a wildfire to grow and engulf entire communities, destroying not only homes and economies but lives.

[Image: liz west]