In a Plague-Time, Undone by Our Vaccine-Defying Independence

Nineteenth in a series, Notes from a Plague-Time

Just as America, after a year-and-a-half of suffering, was heading for Independence Day from COVID-19, we are regressing — perhaps to a worse place than before — defeated not by the virus in any of its variants, but by the human factor at its most irrational and un-citizenly.

First, the irrational part. Citizens described as “vaccine-resistant” or “vaccine-skeptical,” whose doubts about the safety or efficacy of vaccines developed so fast, are somewhat plausible (actually, the research has been ongoing for decades). Less plausible and more harmful, though, are those holdouts who can be called “vaccine-obtuse,” whose reasons are political and ideological, as reflected in a recent posting at the anomalously-named site America Greatness: “I Won’t Take the Vaccine Because It Makes Liberals Mad.” Whether plausible or implausible, these holdouts are now the main obstacle to quelling this plague.

How much worse will our suffering get, thanks to these holdouts? The more contagious and severe Delta variant, follow-on to the original Alpha virus, now accounts for 99% of all deaths — and those dying are the unvaccinated. This is now “a crisis of the unvaccinated.” Yet, until this plague is quelled — via vaccination for all — even more virulent variants lie ahead. As The New York Times writes: “Gamma and Lambda are waiting in the wings, and who knows what frightful versions are already flourishing undetected in the far corners of the world, perhaps even here in America.”

Even the fully vaccinated (two doses) are susceptible to “breakthrough” infection. As The Atlantic writes in a piece titled “Your Vaccinated Immune System is Ready for Breakthroughs”: “When a virus has so thoroughly infiltrated the human population, post-vaccination infections become an arithmetic inevitability.” Vaccine holdouts could stem this infiltration — if they cared.

What a tragedy: The country — America — whose scientific know-how was in big part responsible for bringing the COVID-19 vaccines to market in miraculously short time, and whose current stock of this miraculous (and by the way free) vaccine is more than enough to inoculate every eligible American, faces now who-knows-what medical horrors? Irrationality, 1; rationality, 0.

But equally fatal to the body politic is the near-zero sense of citizenship, among the vaccine holdouts, in the American democracy — specifically, of a responsibility to one’s fellow citizens.

“Individual rights” and “personal freedom” are the drums banged on most insistently, even fanatically, by the vaccine holdouts. By now, this deep into the pandemic, this fanatic insistence has become immoveable psychic investment. So intransigent is this investment that the wider horizon cannot be taken in. The vaccine holdouts appear not even to be aware of, much less care about, the community, the state, the nation.

Such motive force — individual rights, personal freedom — has been part of the American DNA since the American Revolution. In fact, it might be said this motive force enabled the break between the colonists and the English king: We would not be dictated to, we would be captains of our own souls. But: What of the surrounding souls — in our community, nation, world? Until that individual frame expands to the collective — unless Americans mature from emphasis on individual rights and acknowledge the responsibilities attaching to the exercise of our rights — we are sunk. Not long ago The New Yorker ran an article titled “Bad Influencer,” about one man’s distorted — and egregiously irresponsible — interpretation of individual rights: “I want to be able to post fake things to the Internet. That’s my f***ing right as an American.”

A year ago, I wrote of this intransigence of individual rights at the expense of the commonweal, writing then of our mask-defying independence. It is beyond sad, this time writing of our vaccine-defying independence, to see no advance, no maturation. This intransigence bodes badly for America’s capacity to address crises requiring collective response, like climate change.

What can penetrate the vaccine holdouts? Perhaps only Death can (as I also wrote last year), though even a death toll now numbering 611,000 American lives has not impinged. Holdouts should be advised that, while they may think they can hold out until they get sick with COVID, there is a point at which the vaccine does not save: that is, if, once they are hospitalized, they need a ventilator. It is heartbreaking to read of an Alabama doctor who, responding to such patients — even young healthy people — said: “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”

It is hideous to think that it may take more anecdotal evidence of such unnecessary death to “persuade” the vaccine holdouts to acquiesce.

Something else for the vaccine holdouts to think about, as they continue holding out: Only 1% of people in the low-income countries of the world, mainly Africa, have gotten even one shot, while only 14% of the rest of the world has been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, the American vaccine holdout sits among an abundance of vaccine: What waste; we might even call it, taking in the world, sacrilege…. Also to be considered, the disparity based on wealth: 84% of the vaccinations world-wide have gone into the arms of the high- and upper-middle-income countries.

Meanwhile, families are being strained, vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, with the vaccinated anxious that their children, most of whom are unvaccinated, will be infected by a relative (also here). A Portland (OR) father of three young unvaccinated children, one with a serious health condition, states it best, as reported by the Times: “I’ve become angrier as time has gone on. Now there is a vaccine and a light at the end of the tunnel, and some people are choosing not to walk toward it. You are making it darker for my family and others like mine making that choice.”

Dear Vaccine Holdout: As you hold out, think about the Ventilator-of-No-Return. Think about bringing a light to a dark time. Seriously, get the jab. Please.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.