This column was difficult to write for a number of reasons. I wrote and rewrote it at least four times.
Generally, when someone gets sick as a result of not properly ensuring their own safety, we may get frustrated with them at the very most. Yet we will wish them a full and speedy recovery. But when we’re dealing with a deadly once-in-a-century pandemic that took the lives of nearly a million Americans and people had plenty of time to fully comprehend the consequences of not getting vaccinated, sympathy for them is a little hard to come by when they get sick. After dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year now, I struggle to show empathy.
I consider myself an empathetic person. I certainly wouldn’t wish COVID-19 on my worst enemies. After all, said “enemies” have friends and loved ones that care for them and could be vulnerable if they’re in close contact with that person. When I read or hear about someone who believed COVID-19 was a “hoax,” promoted anti-vaccine propaganda or conspiracy theories about the virus on social media, I’m not looking for them to receive some sort of comeuppance. If anything, I’m thinking about them occupying one hospital or ICU bed that could be occupied by someone who got vaccinated and requires medical care for something other than COVID-19. While that hospitalized unvaccinated person faces the grim and real possibility of needing ECMO treatment, intubation and round-the-clock care, someone else who did everything right is unable to receive that care.
I’m thinking about the people in their lives that they’d leave behind if they died from complications of something that was completely preventable. I’m thinking about all the people they don’t know — people unwillingly exposed to COVID-19 because that unvaccinated person was in close contact with them.
There are people on social media who approached this pandemic with a narrow worldview. Instead of showing healthy skepticism and asking questions about vaccines, they made the conscious decision to state their unequivocal anti-vaccine position to friends and followers thereby spreading a different kind of pandemic: disinformation. They willingly intertwine COVID-19, a disease that doesn’t discriminate by political preference, with politics. They share links to websites known for spreading disinformation and have been thoroughly fact-check by politically neutral sources. They share Internet memes indicating distrust for government officials and medical professionals based on sheer belief. And when they end up getting infected, their loved ones ask for support and prayers. If they die from COVID-19, there is this unshakable and immovable sadness that pervades the conversation. That person meant something to someone in their lives. Those who are grieving over the loss are forced to deal with their own lives being turned upside down.
Is it wrong for someone like me to feel the proudly unvaccinated are the epitome of selfishness?
If we take a step back, we can see millions of Americans whose lives were upended by the pandemic directly as a result of others not taking common sense safety precautions. Many have lost their livelihoods and their ability to pay rent, utilities, groceries, find child care and function independently. Kids have lost a formidable year of their childhood. Families members are physically separated from each other as a means to keep their immunocompromised loved ones safe. We lost precious time. Sure, we can make up for it, but that time isn’t coming back. As long as the pandemic remains a pandemic, we’re still left with immeasurable uncertainty. We can force ourselves to pretend normalcy is here, but we can’t truly let our guard down. After enduring several waves and variants of COVID-19, we just don’t know.
But what we do know is we can take a number of simple but effective measures to slow and stop the spread. People can still espouse their beliefs and get vaccinated, wear a mask, socially distance and exercise a modicum of consideration for others.
They can make the choice to get vaccinated without feeling compelled to do so with a vaccine mandate. More businesses and municipalities are enforcing vaccine mandates primarily because the rate of vaccinations have slowed and vaccine hesitancy is high enough to keep us in a perpetual state of vulnerability. We literally cannot afford another devastating wave of infections or a lockdown. We’ve been through so much economic turmoil the past year, any more hardship on our economy could easily take us from a recession to a depression. With supply chain issues, inflation and labor force deficiencies aplenty, we need to focus on efforts to collectively inoculate ourselves from facing harsher circumstances. And yet we’re seeing people objecting vaccine mandates. Why? Because they see those mandates as a personal affront to their freedoms, even if they’re in a public-interfacing professions that uniquely require them to protect and serve the public. Obviously, there are people who are unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, but many don’t have that excuse to fall back on. It’s always about what they want, not what everyone else needs. That’s shortsighted and selfish, to say the least.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve had people I know reach out to me, telling me they’re not getting the vaccine for a number of tired, worn-out and thoroughly debunked reasons like “the flu is deadlier than COVID-19” and “my immune system can handle COVID-19.” I don’t even respond to them anymore because nothing more can be said. This isn’t a matter of debate anymore. We’re well past that point. Early on in the pandemic, I’d push back, passionately make my case, and hope they would listen. More than a year into this pandemic, they’re spouting the same nonsense. What more can I say? I don’t see the point in having that conversation. If they’re not going to listen to the provably vast majority of medical professionals and thumb their nose at them after more than a year of historically unprecedented pain, would they listen to me? Highly unlikely.
I will not talk to the proudly unvaccinated nor will I go out of my way to break bread with them. Don’t see them as an equal. As harsh as that may sound, I believe the true measure of man is their respect for mankind. Should they fall below that standard after given multiple opportunities to achieve better moral clarity on the importance of getting vaccinated, I’m simply not going to acknowledge them as playing a viable role in my life. I’ve made the choice to not respond or engage with them. I’m under no obligation to inform them of my decision.
However, if I wind up in a position of responsibility that requires me to look out for them and their best interests, I will gladly and faithfully fulfill my duty. For now, though, I have to personally draw the line and make it abundantly clear where that line is. If you’re unvaccinated and choose to be based on provably false and misleading claims, you don’t deserve to be part of my life. If you choose to be unvaccinated as an overtly political flex and at the expense of everyone else around you, you’re not entitled to access to me. Right now, our world is facing a sink-or-swim crisis of epic, global proportions. I choose to swim and will let not swim to anyone who wants to sink and commit to sinking everyone else around them.