Talk about compassion

Allow me a bit of a diatribe today, won't you?

A few months back, I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to do this anymore; I was going to stop writing about the pandemic. I did it a lot last year, and though it was often cathartic for me—as I hope it was for you—I saw an opportunity earlier this summer to put Those Uncertain Times behind me. As vaccinations became widely available in the United States, case numbers dipped dramatically, and the sun seemed to come back out, it felt like time to move on as a writer.

Well, I’m mad, and so I’m going back on my promise to myself.

You already know our current story, of course—thanks to the hyper-infectious Delta Variant (god, what a Michael Crichton-knockoff airport-bookstore-novel-ass name for something that’s fucking everything up, isn’t it?), and the stalling of vaccinations at about 70% of the adult population, case numbers are back through the roof, hospitals are filling up again, and we’re all stuck with an intense and horrible case of déjà vu.

I am, of course, mad about that.

But that’s not the specific aspect I want to talk about. I want to talk about compassion.

You see, in the last month or so, there’s been a pernicious thread in certain corners of media coverage, one that—like in so many other things—implores us to hear both sides, to have compassion for the people who are keeping us in this mess.

Vaccines are being required for travel. Here’s how unvaccinated people feel about that. (link)

Vaccinated Americans are drawing sharper lines around who they choose to spend time with amid rising Covid-19 cases, while the unvaccinated are growing testy over being excluded and feeling judged. (link)

The internet is blowing up with stories like these [about unvaccinated people dying]. Liberals respond with snide, superior comments—a “serves ‘em right” attitude. But we won’t stop COVID-19 unless we express compassion. Why were they misled? How can we help? (link)

This is a common reflex in The Discourse these days; a constant theme during the Trump presidency was a hand-wringing from legacy media outlets that the answer to what happened in November 2016 and the four years that followed could be found only through listening: through opening our hearts, sitting down at Rust Belt diners and asking someone wearing a “Fuck Your Feelings” shirt how they felt.

You know, through compassion.

Well, I’d like to talk about compassion.

Where is the compassion for health care workers?

I speak here of the doctors, nurses, practitioners and hospital staff who signed up for a career helping people, but not like this. After a year and a half of utter exhaustion, utter desperation, they’re now facing down their second/third/fourth/nth wave of overwhelming demands, trying valiantly to keep people alive who couldn’t be asked to do the smallest thing to aid that process. They had every right to expect this war would end someday, that they would get to rest and recover and mourn, and they’re watching the tools needed for that end sit unused, expiring in pharmacy refrigerators.

Where is the compassion for teachers?

One of the most heavily-vaccinated groups in America, the front line in basically everything we do as a society, the people who held things together last year trying their damnedest to do their best by kids who they could often only see as a black square among dozens on a screen. They were faced with an impossible task last year and took it on with unimaginable grace and commitment. They deserve both to be back classrooms this fall and to feel like they are able to keep themselves and the children in their care safe while doing so.

Where is the compassion for parents of young children?

There’s a sentiment growing steam amongst the worst kind of I’m-just-asking-questions-but-I’m-also-awful online pundit, one that goes something like: “If you’re vaccinated, why do you even care what the unvaccinated do? You’re safe,” conveniently forgetting that there are tens of millions of people in this country who simply are not eligible to get the shot yet because they’re under 12 years of age.

The parents of those unvaccinated children are forced to fly by the seat of their pants, constantly reassessing the all-too-unclear risk calculus of what might pose a higher threat to their children’s long-term well-being—a virus that may or may not affect them, or another lost year of school and social development.

Where is the compassion for those children?

Hell, forget the parents. We signed on for worry, didn’t we? What about the kids, then? What about the kids themselves, who are starting to forget a world before this current one—or may never have had the chance to experience it at all? A four-and-a-half-year-old’s conscious memories have basically always included masks and social distancing and caution and loss—loss of socialization, loss of family time, or in many, many cases, the loss of a primary caregiver. This is a huge chunk of their lives so far, and the long tail of its impact will stretch on for years. They deserve for this to end.

Where is the compassion for the people who *actually* can’t get shots?

I’m not talking about 24-year-old football players mumbling about “personal decisions” and “talking things over with [my] doctor”, nor am I talking about the people telling Jason Isbell that requiring proof of vaccination to attend one of his concerts is a Hippo Violation.

There are genuinely people who cannot get this shot, and others for whom the immune response generated may not be sufficient to protect them. They deserve to be protected by the people around them, to not have to hide away indefinitely through endless waves of this because those people won’t get the shot for their sake.

Where is the compassion for people you don’t know?

In the types of articles cited in one of the tweets above, there’s a running theme. A person on their deathbed—or their bereaved relatives after their passing—expresses regret over not having gotten the vaccine, because they thought they’d be fine. They were young(ish) and healthy and didn’t have major comorbidities, and so they didn’t think they needed it—until it was too late. They never gave a moment’s consideration, of course, of who they might spread it to: the restaurant workers or grocery store clerks, the coworkers or community members, the people who they figured weren’t their problem until the problem came for them.

Where is the compassion for all those we’ve lost?

618,363 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, as of this writing. 4.3 million people have died worldwide. Those are millions of lives cut unnaturally short, tens of millions of years of life taken away. There are many millions more who miss those people, who will bear the burden of that loss for the remainder of their days.

Where is the recognition of that loss? Where is the compassion for the countless people who wished they’d had the opportunity presented to the people we’re now expected to show compassion for?

The unvaccinated are not a monolith. There are indeed many people who can be reached within the 30% or so of the American adult population who has not yet been vaccinated. There are people in rural and low-income areas who do not have the kind of access that well-to-do and urban populations have. There are people who are fearful of the cost, a fear that’s unfounded in this instance but understandable given the typically astronomical cost of any interaction with the health care system in this country. There are people who fear that they cannot risk missing a day of work if they’re laid up by the shot’s mild but common side effects. The federal government needs to do more to reach these people—it confounds me that there’s not a national advertising campaign stressing IT’S FREE, SERIOUSLY—and state governments need to stop playing to the worst momentary interests and make responsible decisions.

The through-line in articles like I shared above is not those people, though, not the ones who’ve fallen through the cracks. It is the willfully unvaccinated, the gleeful conspiracists, the selfishly self-assessed invincibles, the uncaring many who haven’t gotten the shot simply because they think they’ll be fine without it, because they don’t like being told what to do, because it’ll own the libs or because they just don’t want to, and fuck everybody else, right?

These are the people who think they’re smarter than the science, smarter than the experts, smarter than 160 million of their fellow Americans who’ve gotten the shots and smarter than the billions in other countries literally dying for the opportunity they’re choosing to throw away.

Those are the people we’re being asked to show compassion for.

I do not, in the end, wish those people harm. Every person who rejects the shot and still manages to dance between the raindrops unaffected may be a thumb in the eye of karma, but they’re one fewer calamity for us to bear, one fewer person who will be missed, one fewer drop in the vast ocean of pain that’s risen up to drown us this past year and a half. I wish them good health, as I wish it for you.

But I think it’s fair to ask when they will start showing some compassion.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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