The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We shouldn’t be cruel about covid deaths. We should focus on getting everyone vaccinated.

People walk through part of Universal Orlando Resort on July 28. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/For The Washington Post)
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The text, “I should have gotten the damn vaccine,” from a dying fiance and father, captures the delta moment in America. The courage of the man’s fiancee in sharing their story, hoping that other covid-19 vaccine holdouts would learn from it, is deeply admirable. The messages on social media blaming her family for its own tragedy are typical of depersonalized Internet viciousness.

But they should also lead to some reflection. Many people, I suspect, felt a tinge of vindication when the pandemic turned hard against portions of the country where vaccine skepticism has been, for many, an ideological commitment, a cultural assumption or a result of distrusting science. This reaction, for the most part, has not been against individuals or families but against the aggregate. Yet the aggregate, of course, is the sum of dying individuals and suffering families. And at least one of those families now has five children without a father.

Some of America may be suffering an outbreak of schadenfreude. Many have walked past the empty vaccination sites at Walmart and Costco, in a country where only half the people have taken the full dose of a miracle medicine that could save their lives. At some point, doesn’t recklessness deserve its reward?

But God help us if everyone got the health outcomes we deserved, when we eat poorly, or refuse to exercise, or ignore symptoms of illness — any of which might eventually bring a higher risk of death than covid vaccine hesitancy. Some of us take our recklessness in smaller, extended dosages. (Though it is worse when your neighbor might suffer a cost.)

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And finding satisfaction in someone else’s pain is ugly. Just ugly. A recent reminder of this on the hard right stuck with me. Many in right-wing media chose to mock the emotion displayed by police officers last week testifying before the Jan. 6 select committee about their experiences during the Capitol assault. Such malice in reaction to pain is an essential part of the MAGA ethos. But the face of Dinesh D’Souza — one of the right’s professional trolls — remains haunting. It was a picture of glee in reaction to trauma and injury. Cruelty is the very worst emotion on the face — a horrid parody of joy.

This is a time when the golden rule comes in particularly handy. Would we want others to feel satisfaction at our death and the suffering of our families? Even if we were miniaturized to the size of a statistic? As individuals and as a country, we need to talk ourselves down from this ledge.

The dramatic vaccine uptake in some red states in response to the delta variant surge should not be a source of self-satisfaction but of actual satisfaction. It indicates that not all hesitancy is rooted in unreachable ideology. We know from the statistics that much of this refusal can be traced to age and income. The full vaccination rate for people ages 65 to 74 is more than 80 percent. For people 25 to 39, it is about 48 percent. By comparing regional figures, we know that some hesitancy must be fed by ideology. But certainly not all. We have not yet reached the line where hesitancy becomes a stone wall of ideological refusal. And people who do the right thing now are coming to the aid of their families, neighbors and country, just like those vaccinated before them.

This does not mean that I am reconciled to the capitalization on vaccine hesitancy by right-wing media and politicians. One quote in a story featuring a Southern Missouri man who ended up on a ventilator should haunt all the ideological entrepreneurs selling skepticism. “I was strongly against getting the vaccine,” he said. “Just because we’re a strong conservative family.”

Who defined the refusal of an essential medicine as an attribute of a “strong conservative family”? Who sold medical Russian roulette as a traditional value? Certainly those who make money off the listeners, hits and viewers that sowing doubt brings.

Yet it is political figures who merit the most disgust. Consider Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. His state is the epicenter of the delta outbreak, accounting for 1 of every 5 new covid infections nationwide. Yet he is not, as the Daytona Beach News-Journal points out, holding daily emergency briefings. Instead: “DeSantis sent out a campaign email accusing Dr. Anthony Fauci … of somehow scheming with the Chinese over the spread of the coronavirus — while at the same time proclaiming the economic folly of taking basic precautions against the disease.” Last month, the DeSantis campaign rolled out a line of T-shirts and beer koozies with anti-Fauci themes. “Yep,” the News-Journal concluded, “He has merch.”

This remains lethal lunacy.