People were killed by the thousands. But only cash will motivate some Coloradans.

The state’s million-dollar vaccination drawings are nothing to celebrate

Gov. Jared Polis announces the Comeback Cash program of million-dollar drawings to persuade Coloradans to get vaccinated, on May 25, 2021. (Governor Jared Polis Faceback)

When Gov. Jared Polis announced the state’s latest attempt to convince holdouts to get vaccinated, he placed a giant prop check for a million dollars on a stand and assumed his best carnival barker act.

“That’s right! You can win one million dollars, and you may already be entered!” the governor declaimed from a podium. “Anybody who got the vaccine in Colorado or who gets the vaccine will be an automatic participant in not one, not two, not three, not four, but five drawings for a million dollars!”

Yeah. It was bad.

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The idea of offering cash prizes to get vaccine-hesitant people to do what should be considered a civic duty was popularized in Ohio, whose leaders announced the state’s “Vax-A-Million” drawings earlier this month. In Colorado’s program, modeled on Ohio’s, every adult who has been vaccinated for COVID-19 will be entered in five drawings to choose a million-dollar winner in each. The first drawing in what’s called Comeback Cash is scheduled for June 4, the last on July 7.

It’s hard to imagine anything else that could so perfectly encapsulate American society’s pitiful response to the pandemic. That response has been characterized by stupendous acts of selfishness, complete abandonment of social responsibility, extremist elevation of the individual over the community, lethal rejection of the common good, and nauseating displays of personal entitlement. The million-dollar drawing is not only necessitated by the selfishness of so many Coloradans but it relies on it.

From the start of the pandemic, right-wing lunacy created a more dangerous environment for everyone. It fueled resistance to social distancing measures. It celebrated defiance of public health orders. It jeopardized the lives of public health care workers. It encouraged rejection of mask-wearing protocols. It normalized the view that COVID-19 was a hoax. And it gave license to outrageously antisocial behavior under the banner of individual freedom.

That’s the banner Republican Rep. Ken Buck raised in opposition to the vaccine. “I have the freedom to decide if I’m going to take a vaccine or not and in this case I am not going to take the vaccine,” he said on Fox News in December.

Herd immunity — when a large enough proportion of a population is protected from a virus for it to be eliminated as a community threat — is estimated to be at least 80% for COVID-19. But about 30% of the U.S. population is reluctant or unwilling to get vaccinated, including a sizable portion of Coloradans. Some, especially from communities of color, harbor an understandable distrust of vaccines, or they have a medical condition that precludes vaccination. But many have gone unvaccinated out of “hesitancy or laziness,” as Polis once described it. Others subscribe to the Buck brand of responsibility-free personal choice, no matter how many fellow Coloradans it kills.

But public health officials are betting that pecuniary selfishness will overpower political selfishness. And it’s probably a safe bet. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine claimed that after implementation of his state’s lottery, shots increased 49% among people 16 and older. Coloradans seem to have an insatiable appetite for gambling in other arenas. And the roughly 1-in-500,000 odds of winning the vaxx prize are attractive.

But even if the program works, there’s no avoiding the profound failure at its heart. We might acknowledge that methadone clinics offer an effective treatment for heroin users, but we don’t celebrate them. Comeback Cash is at best a regrettable expedient to address shameful behavior. The state essentially is spending $5 million in bribes to persuade residents to do the right thing at a time when Colorado unemployment remains at double pre-pandemic rates, when a wave of evictions could be imminent, when the pandemic is believed to have contributed to a significant increase in homelessness, and when COVID-19 has killed more than 6,700 people and counting in the state. 

During his announcement of the drawings, Polis quoted “The Hunger Games” and said to eligible Coloradans, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” In the movie the line referred to a deathmatch among children for entertainment in a dystopian future society. Odds are that Polis was careless with the quote, but, given the dystopian qualities of our own society’s approach to the pandemic, it was apt.

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