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Ballad of the Anti-Vaxxers

Hoping they go away isn’t a solution

Photo by Edwin Hooper

Two years ago next month, a dear friend of mine sent me a medical abstract about a virulent form of pneumonia strafing through Wuhan, China. The article referred to a disease called SARS-CoV-2, fatal in many instances, especially to the elderly and immuno-compromised. Its high transmissibility was the thing that chilled us to the bone. We both knew a disease that contagious would never be successfully contained. It would spread like wildfire, and fresh hell would be unleashed on earth.

As of 21 November, 2021, there have been 257 million cases worldwide and 5.14 million deaths, making SARS-CoV-2 one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Due to limited testing capacities and/or the unwillingness of a recalcitrant public to get tested or vaccinated, mortality numbers rather than disease statistics may better reflect the consequences of SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as Covid-19, especially in countries like France, Italy, the United States, Iran, Spain, India, and the UK. According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, half of all global coronavirus deaths have gone unreported. In the U.S. alone, which has the highest death toll of any country, 580,000 lives weren’t lost — the unofficial count actually puts us closer to 900,000.

I saw it coming. Not because I’m a statistician or a medical expert or even particularly clever, but because I’m an American. I know how Americans think. It’s us versus them, bootstraps, manifest destiny. It’s the myth of rugged individualism, don’t tread on me, states rights. It’s the story of America itself where a band of civilly disobedient Enlightenment thinkers tossed crates of tea into the Boston Harbor, shook their fist at mad King George, and refused to pay a penny more in taxes.

America was founded on the principle of “me first”. I knew we weren’t going to cooperate for the good of everyone; we were going to do whatever the hell we wanted. Historically, America has always been a dumping ground for pickpockets, prostitutes, murderers, and religious zealots. It’s encoded in our DNA to hate government; indeed, to hate any authority except our own. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, I sent up warning after warning to my American friends, letting them know that Covid-19 was headed their way, few would cooperate with mask mandates or social distancing, and the time to start battening down the hatches was now.

Photo by Clay Banks

Sadly, I was right. While Italy was in lockdown, the virus was silently rampaging across the United States, mutating at an alarming rate, becoming ever more dangerous. While Milan was stowing the overflow of dead bodies inside churches, Spring Breakers were partying on the sugar-white sands of Florida beaches, drunk on defiance. Everyone was doing “their own research,” much of that on social media where virus debunking was at the top of every news feed. Facebook had cynically monetized its own algorithm to maximize engagement, which meant keeping users in a constant state of agitation and fury: fury at government overreach or fury at those who refused to take the pandemic seriously. No matter the consequences, all eyes were lured to Facebook and Fox News, which ensured a steady flow of tasty ad revenue to satisfy shareholders.

But let’s get real. None of what happened online or in broadcast media would have been possible without the fertile playing field of American exceptionalism. We were all too receptive to crackpot QAnon conspiracies, cockamamie theories about George Soros, a stolen election, and microchipped vaccines. We wanted to stand our ground, overthrow democracy, and do what we thought was best.

Our lives belong to us, and a murrain on anyone who suggests otherwise.

In a thousand microcosmic ways, we in the west perpetuate this all-encompassing belief: it’s my life, stay out of it. In Eastern cultures, that ethos is turned on its head. One’s life belongs to one’s family, community, even country — although among the younger generations in China, say, that’s gradually changing; perhaps not for the better.

Italy during the 2020 lockdown was a strange and surreal place

Who does your life belong to? Any American will tell you, emphatically, without hesitation, “My life belongs to me”. It’s the question we ask and answer every time we seek a divorce, undergo a semi-dangerous cosmetic procedure, accept a bribe, override authority, eschew masks, or refuse to get vaccinated. Insisting your life is your own is neither good nor bad, although it can be both or neither, depending on the circumstances. In the case of Covid-19, our inability to consider the needs of others has unnecessarily prolonged the pandemic in our country and across the globe.

China is nearing 88% full vaccination, according to Reuters, with on average 34 new infections each day. Portugal is among the most highly vaccinated countries in the world, with virtually no one left to vaccinate. Russia’s abysmal 41% vaccination rate has made it a breeding ground for infection. Yesterday, Russia had 37,120 new cases and 1,254 deaths.

In the U.S., only 59% of those eligible for the vaccine have received both shots; 69% have received one. That’s not nearly enough. Our Covid cases are just beginning to tick upward, but we have already entered a fatal fourth wave.

In our quest for “freedom”, we have doomed the planet to eternal suffering, poverty, and in many cases, death. Why? The reasons people choose not to vaccinate are complex: inconvenience to themselves, lack of confidence in the vaccines, paranoia that the vaccines will cause infertility or nervous disorders (this has no basis in fact, by the way, and is as much an urban legend as Bigfoot), laziness, an erroneous belief that they are immune to the disease or the victim of malign actors. But mostly, I suspect, some people don’t get vaccinated because they’ve conflated “rugged individualism” with “me, me. me”: I believe, I’ve read, I have inside information. The rest of us who follow science and understand how vaccines work are a bunch of chumps/sheeple/snowflakes/libtards. It’s Republican versus Democrat now, like a soccer match of seething, internecine hatred.

There is a cure for what ails us, of course: mandatory vaccinations. The only problem with mandatory anything is that it goes against the grain of who we think we are: individuals exercising personal liberty. Yet study after study shows, when faced with being unemployed or “adhering to one’s principles,” Americans get vaccinated.

Those of us in the West like to think we’re big independent thinkers. We’re not. We’re intellectually lazy, far more likely to latch onto the Joe Rogans of this world than to buckle down and get the facts for ourselves. That would require rigor, focus, reading. Isn’t it just easier to parrot the nonsense you hear on YouTube than to actually think for yourself?

Right now, our lives do not belong to ourselves. They belong to everyone. We belong to each other. Whether we like it, don’t like it, accept it, reject it, nothing will change that one irrefutable fact. If we can’t or won’t do the right thing and get vaccinated to stop this pandemic, then we must be made to do the right thing, even if it sets a dangerous authoritarian precedent.

Freedom is an empty abstraction as long as there are people gasping for breath in the ICU. That’s why we should do with anti-vaxxers what we do with smokers: put them outside, relegate them to specific areas. Your right to smoke doesn’t give you the right to pollute my lungs with your smoke, just as your right to refuse the vaccine doesn’t give you the right to sicken or kill me. When we let irrational emotion override logic is where we get in trouble.

At their core, anti-vaxxers are frightened, and frightened people do terrible things. Ignoring them isn’t going to stop this juggernaut. We act now or forever regret our hesitation.

If we can’t find a way to stop this, it’s going to be war.



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