Recently, I strolled over to a local chain drugstore to get my seasonal influenza shot. There was little waiting and no out-of-pocket expense, thanks to my comprehensive (albeit costly) medical insurance. Back in March I received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 exactly three weeks apart, without any side effects to speak of; a third “booster” jab is in the cards for this autumn.
During my lifetime I’ve been inoculated against smallpox, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and B, shingles and pneumococcal disease, among others. I’m fairly certain that, so far, I’ve never suffered from smallpox, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and B, shingles, pneumococcal disease, or even the flu. Nor have I endured an acute reaction from any of these treatments.
Months before the COVID-19 vaccines were available to me, I began protecting myself by wearing a mask whenever in close proximity to people outside my household; for almost two years I’ve rarely logged a temperature above 98.3 degrees Fahrenheit! Upon returning from Japan in February 2020, I was bewildered by the resistance in North America to the use of cheap, almost weightless masks, which seemed a likely reason why East Asian countries had limited the spread of the novel coronavirus quite well. The opposition to COVID-19 inoculation is a more complex matter altogether.
Ever since Edward Jenner pioneered immunization against smallpox in the late 18th century, fear has spawned powerful vaccine foes. Long before Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., became the contemporary face of the movement, the National Anti-Vaccination League rose to challenge Britain’s compulsory-vaccination laws. But the safety and efficacy of medications have improved tremendously over the decades. Often featuring some ludicrous claims, the central thesis of most “anti-vaxxers” – that the injections are more dangerous than the diseases they’re meant to prevent – has never been less valid.
(It’s a credit to medical science that the last time I inquired, a virologist said the risk of getting infected with smallpox from inoculation was greater than by living unvaccinated because the once-dreaded disease had been virtually eradicated – by vaccines!)
On the other hand, is it illogical for informed people to reject questionable Chinese, Russian or Indian vaccines — or even hold out for an mRNA vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna when only those from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are offered? As for me, I would gladly accept the first one available and approved by credible regulatory authorities. Yet this obviously high comfort level has a rather old backstory that needs telling.
Perhaps my earliest childhood recollection is of a trip to Atlantic City with my sister Reissa, my mother’s young sister Ruth, and my parents. All I remember of it was watching my mother and father ride off in the motel’s golf cart, presumably to tour the property. My attempts over the years to reconstruct the trip became a Rashomon-like experience, as all of the participants recalled certain details differently.
However, everybody agreed on why our Atlantic City vacation ended so badly. It was the late 1950s or early 1960s, and Reissa, Ruthie, Mom and I had all been immunized for polio – but not my father. Dad fell deathly ill, although he was fortunately spared the paralysis often associated with that sickness. I heard that Uncle Ralph drove down from Montreal to bring the children home while Mom waited as my father recovered well enough to return.
When asked why my dad alone was unvaccinated, my late mother always gave me the unsatisfactory answer that he was too busy with work. Since then, he has confessed to believing that he really didn’t need it. “I thought I was a big shot, and it almost killed me,” he stated, having learned the proverbial hard way. And so earlier this year, at the age of 88, he rolled up his sleeve twice for Pfizer-BioNTech jabs without hesitation.
COVID-19 is an object lesson in shattering cultural myths, denial of evolution being one. Welcome to Variant Delta! Cultural evolution on the right side of the political spectrum, those who do not believe in Darwinian evolution, is progressing further to the right. It turns out that identity politics, of which they keep hammering the left, is actually projection. It is all about purity. Vaccination transgresses purity of the self. Politics revolves around purity of culture and race. Purity alone will prevent infection. Purity of purpose will usher in the second coming of “45.” Meanwhile, barriers on our borders will protect us, while personal protection barriers are infringements of God-given rights. If Judeo-Christian thought could be distilled to one element, it would be the Golden Rule. If the same distillation of the U.S. Constitution were to be applied, it would be: your rights end where my rights begin. Thus, societal evolution of living with the virus will dictate marginalization of those who deem the vaccine unclean. Red-state governors might outlaw mandates, but good luck getting on a plane, working for a major corporation, going to a football game. The bed they made will certainly become more lumpy. We are in a scrum over whether we will achieve herd immunity or the bogeyman will merely walk away one day. On one side is the virus, on the other the Big Lie. Where would Darwin put his money?
That’s a lot to consider, Hank. But I’m intrigued by the notion of vaccines as a pollutant. Conservative politics in America, particularly the anti-immigration aspect, appear to have devolved into an obsession with cultural and even racial purity. As the latest census showed, white-majority status is in decline, which some view as an existential threat.
The biggest issue in America today on the right is the culture war. On the center and left it is the pandemic, an existential threat. I think a rational mind would come to the conclusion that the dysfunction is on the right. For them this is merely a rest stop on the Interstate to heaven. Among atheists, it is the only destination.
You could add climate change to the list of grave threats that the right doesn’t take very seriously.
I would also add the proliferation of microplastics in the food chain. Since many plastics are endocrine disruptors and they are ubiquitous, I wonder to what extent they are affecting or will affect animal life, including ours.
I didn’t know that about your Dad!
I worked with someone around our age who had a significant limp from contracting polio when she was a kid. Should have asked her if she had been immunized and, if not, why not.
Hope all is good.
Good read. Thanks for that. Hope all is well, Gary.
Thanks for your blogpost; I do enjoy your writing. That was a great, albeit sad, story about Uncle Milton, and I’m glad to hear that he is fully vaccinated. And soon to be 89! It’s the kind of story that should be shared with anti-vaxxers, but it would fall on deaf ears. Can you believe it has been 10 years since my Dad passed? I liked that you included him in your story.
May Hashem protect us all!
Your pal, Momo
Great story, Gary, and one that I’d never heard before. I am so puzzled by the anti-vaxxers who believe in monoclonal antibodies and all manner of science when they get sick but refuse prevention because they “don’t trust the science.” A total contradiction. I worry about all the underage kids ineligible for the vaccine whose parents want them to go to school unmasked. I just wish that those who refuse the vaccine would be ineligible for care once stricken. They are willfully straining our healthcare system and denying service to those who would otherwise be getting treatment for non-COVID related ailments. Fuckers!
Well said, Gary!
Glad your dad got the jab too!
Entirely agree, Gary. I’ll have the booster too. We all will. A matter of survival, plus the mental-health consequences for us all of more lockdowns would be unimaginable. Especially the young. For those of us who love liberty, as Kenneth (“Civilisation”) Clarke memorably put it, “Time to give up your principles and do the right thing!”
Excellent piece. Never knew your dad had polio.
One element of the anti-vaxxer movement is the need of the far right (which, by the way, is now actually the center right) is to pull out all stops and make everything a polarizing political football. If something can be tagged as coming from the mouths of the “elite,” it is wrong. Right-wing America yearns for the halcyon days of yore when you emerged to adulthood without being educated at a higher level — when America was in God’s cradle, rocking gently to a divine melody. You might recall it: the dustbowl, bread lines, yes, polio, before there were seat belts to restrict your freedom. (This month’s “Road & Track” has an interview with Ralph Nader in which he says that even Trump supporters buckle up to prevent their freedom of going through the windshield.) You remember the America where the Catholic Church moved around pedophile priests. Yes, the perfect world of the past could never quite shake drunken driving, divorce, spousal abuse, and so many other issues that today predominate in “Red State” America. Remember slavery? No, the problem with this country is not in our stars, it is in anything that is not in Red State America. Whatever the rest of the country is concerned with that is not part of the great American past is something to make into a cultural-identity issue. Enter COVID-19. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t serious. It is a distraction. It is a means by which the federal government and the secret cabal of the left will use to control the minds and bodies of those who otherwise would “Make America Great Again.”
Well, this coronavirus is real. The New York Times TimesWire today posted a study that concluded that half of the people who had the disease suffer from at least one symptom one year later. I will conclude that Red State America will be walking around with a pebble in one shoe for some time to come. And when you consider that one of the long COVID symptoms is mental health, we can expect further nonsense coming from that part of the spectrum: more conspiracy theories, more obstruction, more insanity.
Yes, another reason to get the vaccine is that Red State America doesn’t want it.
Gary, the reasons you got vaccinated are that, one, you’re not stupid and, two, you’re not a nut that’s been captured by a conspiratorial idea. Not all the unvaccinated are one of those two varieties, but many are.
It’s instructive to look at the statistics of intelligence. Using the typical standard deviation of 15, the percent of the population between IQ 80 and IQ 105 is about 54%. (See the first two columns of https://www.iqcomparisonsite.com/iqtable.aspx.) IQ isn’t a complete determining factor for anything, but it is indicative.
Back when we were children, that kind of person often held a good union job. If they were careful and lucky, their family could aspire to a reasonable standard of living, even with a single breadwinner. Then the dominant methods of wealth production changed from manufacturing to one based on computing, in every field. Greater intelligence is now required for a simple middle class life, and often two incomes as well.
People feel like they’ve lost something, and really they have. They’re not smart enough to assign the blame to the Republicans who crushed their unions. They’d rather blame the traditional scapegoat, as we saw in the 2017 Charlottesville protest.
When people are sort of dim, but want to feel smart, they sometimes latch onto a non-standard idea, like a conspiracy theory. Then they feel better because “I know more than the scientists!” and “I know more than the generals!” and they believe this: https://youtu.be/sR3f95BGIiA
This kind of thinking doesn’t explain everything, but it certainly explains why it was so easy to hoodwink 40% of the population, and more. They want to blame someone else. They don’t want to feel like they’re simple … but they are.
Now, I must go. My space laser’s targeting system needs adjustment.
Thanks for your interesting comment, Larry.
I’ve never been a big fan of IQ as a measure of “intelligence,” possibly because mine isn’t particularly high (not that I’ve ever been tested, to my recollection). However, I have seen compelling data correlating educational level with willingness to get vaccinated. There are always exceptions, of course. There are educated, successful, disciplined, driven individuals who can’t quit smoking cigarettes. Not everybody who opposes vaccination is a fool.
But I sometimes wonder if this era of populism is akin to those when burning witches and other acts of superstition prevailed over reason. It seems that the less-educated are more prone to reject science and expertise now than at any time I can remember, despite obvious recent triumphs in medicine — notably the rapid development of safe and effective vaccines against the virus plaguing the entire world.