Amidst a global pandemic involving a readily communicable disease whose airborne method of transmission is widely known, it seems fairly simple to invoke some basic methods of suppression. But no, the Republican governors of two of our larger states, Florida and Texas, are intent on a public policy of mass suicide. There is no other way to interpret the wanton disregard for the safety of citizens shown by these two political leaders.
What’s really scary is the extent to which roughly 45% of the population nationally has bought into this refusal to get vaccinated and wear masks.
I’ve held off writing this because I find it extremely difficult not to convey my disgust at this state of affairs. I wanted to make sure my judgment was sound and I was not showing a lack of respect for the choices that people were making. And I am fully aware that a certain percentage of the populace has justifiable reasons for not wanting to get poked with the now spectacularly successful inoculant that has proven to raise considerably the resistance to infection.
Communities of color have good historic reason to be suspicious of the claims made by the medical community. There are millions of poor working people whose low-wage, hourly jobs do not give them time off to get vaccinated. There are also a very few people who have legitimate medical reasons for avoiding the vaccine. And it would take a more knowledgeable theologian than I am to validate the specious claims of a certain few religious zealots that their scripture justifies abstinence. But the vast majority of those who have yet to line up for their shots strike me as being wildly irresponsible to themselves and to their families, neighbors, co-workers and the nation at large.
My real ire is reserved for political and community leaders who variously claim that the pandemic is a hoax and the vaccine a fraud. It is particularly scandalous when these folks issue edicts and promote legislation preventing public agencies from requiring vaccination or establishing mask mandates in schools. Doing so exposes people to unnecessary risks and acutely threatens the health of those less than twelve years of age – who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. So much for Pro Life.
When weighed against the flagrantly irresponsible and dangerous consequences of such behavior, any concerns I might have about unduly offending the choices people make seem insignificant.
It has helped my thinking considerably on the matter to have just read a little book about the difficulty of dealing with those who are determined to be ignorant. Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, by the British writer Keith Kahn-Harris, is a helpful guide. Published in 2018, it does not deal with the pandemic but it does deal with vaccine denial, Holocaust denial and climate denial. Its basic point is that you cannot argue with such people on their terms; that the only way to proceed is to strip bare their underlying hostility to truth and science and ask them to explain what sort of world they really want to occupy. If they are being honest, it will be an ugly world.
A basic axiom of contemporary discourse, I have found, is that if people are determined to be stupid there is nothing you can do to stop them. But public policy can nonetheless proceed on a rational basis. That is why we have seat belt laws, speed limits and stop signs. It is also why the advent of other vaccines against diphtheria, polio, rabies, tetanus tuberculosis and whooping cough (pertussis) were greeted so eagerly with relief when they were developed and are now standard.
As if the initial coronavirus were not bad enough, killing 610,000 Americans and 4.3 million worldwide, the recent outbreak of the wildly more dangerous and more communicable Delta variant has dramatically raised the stakes. Those who are getting it and dying from it are overwhelmingly those who have not been vaccinated. And yet somehow the claims of vaccination being unnecessary, even harmful, have merged with the worst kind of partisan politics, fed by a right-wing media machine that is led by Fox News correspondents and commentators (who have been vaccinated).
This is some kind of politicized nightmare, one which is now tantamount to an exercise in public policy suicide. Never in American history have we seen such an irresponsible campaign. It has merged with a curious anti-elitism and become part of a propaganda campaign that is thinly veiled in its racist, anti-modernist, anti-urban and anti-democratic undertones.
It is not clear what is more dangerous: the resurgent pandemic or the politics that continues to make it possible. Unless we take a stronger stand on behalf of rational health planning, this country is in deadly trouble.