The total confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States surpassed 40 million on Monday. That's more than the entire population of California. Almost 650,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic started 18 months ago, but Elizabeth Bruenig at The Atlantic thinks we're focused too much on individual deaths as opposed to more objective and dehumanizing statistics.

A record of the plague dead: Stacy Forbess, 55, an Alabama twirling coach; Haley Mulkey Richardson, 32, a pregnant Alabama nurse; Cindy Dawkins, 50, a Florida restaurant worker; Martin and Trina Daniel, 53 and 49, a Georgia couple married for some 20 years; Lawrence and Lydia Rodriguez, 49 and 42, a Texas couple married for 21. All unvaccinated, and all whose deaths were covered by various papers and TV stations, with notes of shame or contempt subtle in some tales and bold in others.

Whom are these stories for?

Here's a guess: People with human souls. Bruenig thinks these stories are simply “death shaming," which is not a thing but she's going to run with it.


Bruenig claims the articles she cites reek with “shame or contempt" for the unvaccinated, as if they're all cynical “Law & Order" Det. Lennie Briscoe at the scene of a drunk driving death: “Rest in peace, you sorry bastard." She doesn't offer any constructive feedback for writing more upbeat coverage of the deaths of otherwise healthy person who'd still be alive if they'd taken a free, safe, and readily available vaccine. It's like the playwriting challenge: “Give me Hamlet but FUNNY."

We should note that Bruenig has written about the impact of “crushing medical debt" and in a since-deleted tweet (she deletes aall her tweets) lamented her own personal financial burden from a brief lapse in health care coverage. She's often raged against a system that crushes the “economically anxious." But, examined within a vacuum, the COVID-19 vaccine is like universal health care that people turn down so they can buy expensive snake oil over the counter. This is fundamentally tragic.

But if persuasion is the target, then the aim seems off—a general problem in our democracy, where persuasion is a key method of self-governance but something we're less and less amenable to.

[ ... ]

And so: What would a genuine persuasion effort look like, with respect to vaccines?

There are 215 words in the meandering salad between those two sentences, one of which is “The dream is the last thing to go." That particular sentence should've been the first one to go.

I should pause here to stress that reporting the rising number of preventable COVID-19 deaths is arguably not about “shame" or even “persuasion." It's the documentation of an American tragedy that would shock even Theodore Dreiser. We owe it to ourselves and to the dead to know the names and learn a little about the lives, cut needlessly short, of the victims from a plague of willful ignorance.

Bruenig suggests we “honestly and seriously" examine what motivates vaccine skeptics or outright resisters. But I don't recommend anyone watching Fox News or hanging out in an anti-vax Facebook group.

People who have chosen vaccination (like myself) are already convinced that being vaccinated radically improves their odds of avoiding the worst effects of COVID-19, and thus the shot sells itself. The tsk-tsk obituary reflects that exact mentality, which is useful only if you hope to persuade someone who would've already been persuaded in the first place.

That's great. Science has successfully convinced Elizabeth Bruenig not to die. But how do we sell the shots to people who think the vaccine will turn them into Bill Gates's robot slaves? Yet again, I pause to introduce reality to this conversation. We don't consider stories about the latest mass shooting or fatal drug overdose “tsk tsk obituaries." It's just what happened, and it sucks. We sometimes realize that persuasion alone won't work. Sometimes people have to hit rock bottom before entering rehab. Sometimes legal coercion is best for all involved, and the indoor smoking ban is perhaps the closest recent analogue to vaccine mandates.

Perhaps they've been paying attention to the news. The New York Times recently reported that myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, is more common after COVID-19 vaccination; likewise, NPR featured a story earlier this month on university researchers looking into thousands of claims of menstrual changes following vaccination, and two days later Reuters ran a news article noting that European regulators were probing a skin rash and a pair of kidney disorders as possible side effects of the vaccines. None of these potential side effects has yet been verified by rigorous research.

Yeah, right: The folks eating horse paste are reluctant to take the vaccine because of a New York Times article they read over their morning coffee. Medical experts have consistently stated that negative side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines are rare and not nearly as severe as death. [Rebecca here: I had an unexpected period after my first shot. You know what happened? I had an unexpected period.]

Bruenig claims we're unfairly ascribing total recalcitrance to the unvaccinated, so she spoke with someone's who chosen not to get vaccinated. Because she is a well-compensated, professional journalist, she interviewed her own uncle, who “works in auto repair in North Texas."

Chris is an honest, fair, and kind-hearted person, the easygoing one in a family of tightly wound people. When I asked him why he and his wife had chosen not to get a shot yet, he said they were still thinking about it.

"My whole thought process is that it hasn't been vetted out yet," he told me. "Nobody knows any long-term effects on this. You know what they tell you about it," he submitted, but the FDA's emergency-approval process has been very abbreviated, in his reckoning, compared with the full-approval process for other vaccines and lifesaving drugs.

This is not a “thought process" at all. Maybe I'm a snob for trusting Dr. Anthony Fauci over Bruenig's uncle, but Dr. Fauci has repeatedly stressed that the vaccines met all appropriate safety protocols before release. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also publicly back the vaccine.

When someone challenges medical professionals with “you know what they tell you about it," they are giving in to paranoia and cynicism, both of which have proven COVID-19's more reliable accomplice. Bruenig challenged so-called “tsk-tsk obituaries" and then gave us a “tsk-tsk" anti-vax account from an immediate family member.

A friend who's a doctor told me how unvaccinated people turn up at the hospital seriously ill from COVID-19. They don't have time to do “their own research" about the medical treatment exhausted doctors and nurses are providing them at the eleventh hour. They also don't care. If they'd previously deferred to reputable medical professionals and gotten vaccinated, they could've avoided their dismal fate. I hope for Bruenig's sake that her uncle doesn't wind up in a similar situation.

[The Atlantic]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."

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