How we feel and how we think are two different things
By Herbert Rothschild
Almost 850,000 deaths and counting. If that isn’t a national catastrophe, what would be? Each death is a person. One was a dear friend of mine who lived in the New York City area. She contracted the virus in late January 2020, just before the alert went out. She didn’t know there was a threat to be avoided. Since then, we have known. What the hell are we doing?
As of Jan. 11, 83 patients with COVID-19 were in Jackson and Josephine County hospitals. Asante reported that 79% of the patients in its three hospitals were unvaccinated and 91% of those in its intensive care units were unvaccinated. In the past three months, 87% of those who have died of the disease in Asante’s hospitals have been unvaccinated.
I think back to last September, when staff at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford were struggling to cope with a surge of cases. A large group of demonstrators gathered to decry any mandatory public health measures, citing personal freedom and a variety of unfounded charges against the vaccines. Almost one-third of adults in our county remain unvaccinated. How is one to think about such behavior?
How one feels about it is a different matter. Emotions arise spontaneously as responses to the situations in which we find ourselves. In themselves, emotions are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. If you get angry at people who seek admission to hospitals when they get the virus, yet fail to see the inconsistency between their proclamations of individual freedom and their reliance on help from others, you need not reproach yourself. I find such behavior infuriating, and I make no apology for feeling that way. But what should our prefrontal cortex, our capacity to weigh and judge, make of that emotion?
Like me, you’ve probably become aware over the last several months of high profile anti-vaxxers who succumbed to COVID-19. For example, last August, Dick Farrel, Marc Bernier, Tod Tucker and Phil Valentine, all of them popular talk show hosts who spread misinformation about the disease and mocked the vaccines, died. In late November, Marcus Lamb, founder with his wife of the Dallas-based “Christian” Daystar Television Network, succumbed. On their show, the couple asserted that the vaccines kill the immune system and instead recommended ivermectin, budesonide, hydroxychloroquine and, of course, prayer.
Such deaths feel like poetic justice. But insofar as this response may go beyond emotion to an affirmation of their deaths (which I confess I’ve repeatedly been tempted to do), I disavow it. A helpful analogy may be our attitudes toward capital punishment. It too may seem like poetic justice, but I’m opposed to the death penalty, and not only because innocent persons are sometimes convicted and because it is used in so flagrantly discriminatory a way. Each life is precious. What we should want from those who take another’s life is a change of heart.
I know several people who refused to be vaccinated and fell ill. I’m glad all of them recovered; I would have felt badly had they died. Their lives are precious. I know this because I know them. People come to that same knowledge when they get to know persons on the death rows in this country.
The analogy with capital punishment may be helpful in another way. No society can function if it doesn’t declare that murder and similar assaults on social cohesion are intolerable. The punishment of those who commit them is not personal revenge but public declaration. It’s wonderful when a justly punished person has a change of heart, but despite the understanding that generated the term “penitentiary,” that’s not the primary function of prisons.
By no means all, but some, motives for and forms of resistance to COVID-19 precautions are, in my view, assaults on social cohesion. I single out both an ill-considered and misguided notion of personal freedom and selfish political calculation. Talk show hosts and elected officials who are staging these assaults deserve punishment. Without qualms I would be pleased if governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott were laid low by the disease. They have killed people with legal impunity.
I have an abiding interest in why people change their minds. I’ve concluded that the two leading reasons are, first, that they must function in a system requiring behavior that reflects a different understanding than one they’ve had, and second, personal experience.
The law is a powerful educator, and the legal system is the system within which we must all function. Unfortunately, unlike our nation’s universal seat belt mandate, we have no universal mandates for behaviors that prevent the spread of COVID-19, even though rejecting those precautions affects others far more than does a refusal to buckle up. It bodes well that there are mandates in more and more schools and workplaces, but that won’t be sufficient to end morbidity and death in places like Jackson County, where social responsibility has insufficient sway. Thus, we must look to personal experience to effect change.
So it is that when the unvaccinated get seriously ill or die, the minds of those who know them often change. And when such a fate befalls high-profile resisters — especially if they publicly repent — lots of minds may change. The cost of such change is high, but if people refuse to take a public danger seriously until it impacts them personally, those of us who understand that no man is an island are permitted to regard their pain with some degree of equanimity.
Email Ashland.news board member and columnist Herbert Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.