The Unvaxxed and a History of Cynicism

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The vitriol that characterized discussions about vaccines, masking, and school policies has been deeply troubling. I am a doctor concerned about COVID. At first I thought everyone would want to be vaccinated. I thought the pandemic would force everyone to isolate themselves and socially distance themselves to protect themselves, their family and their community. Now we know it didn’t turn out that way. Come to think of it, I think we shouldn’t be surprised. Our history should have prepared us for a cynical lack of unity and determination. Our response to the COVID crisis has revealed the horrific story that has led to our current crisis.

During World War II my father and many other fathers, uncles and grandfathers went to war. They voluntarily fought to protect the United States and preserve democracy and the American way of life. But, in the 60s, I rushed into the public health service not to be enlisted to go to Vietnam. I felt it was an immoral and unnecessary war; a person for whom it was not worth dying for. Many others of my generation felt the same, but others thought that going to war was patriotic.

Vietnam was the start of the great divide. After the war, we had runaway inflation, a junk bond crisis, a savings and loan crisis, a dot-com bust and wage stagnation. The economic inequality between 1% and 99% has grown increasingly wide, sparking resentment and anger. The result was that a large segment now felt that their country had changed. Their needs were no longer prioritized by leaders in government, science and medicine.

By the time we had the Bush-Cheney wars of the 2000s, our servicemen were all volunteers. It’s an understatement to describe a professional army made up of people who are not like me. I am a coastal resident, professional, and graduate of an Ivy League university with an income well above the median. My retirement savings increased during the pandemic while others experienced economic disaster. We shouldn’t be surprised that people like me aren’t believed when they advocate for vaccines, masks, and public health. We think we are talking about science. We think the people on the other side are stupid if they are not convinced when we show them statistics and charts. (They weren’t convinced by the stats and charts.)

Of course, the more we call them idiots, the wider the gap becomes. Vaccine deniers and public health resisters are reacting based on the story that has placed them on the wrong side of the economic divide for the past 50 years. They have been prepared not to believe us because they do not identify us as belonging to the same country as them. It hasn’t helped that there are slanderous politicians stoking their anger and resentment. And it hasn’t helped either that there are doctors and nurses who have been promulgating lies to support people who wish to resist national calls for anti-COVID action.

What a long way since the Second World War! The pandemic has become a partisan struggle that separates us. What is there to do? I have an answer that is not very sexy, and I don’t know if it will happen, but I don’t see any other solution.

I hope for a utopian change in the way we deal with each other. After more than 650,000 deaths and many more seriously ill people in hospital, everyone will realize that we have a problem. Neighbors will tell their neighbors that vaccines, masks and other public health measures are needed. They will tell them to do it to protect each other. Do it, not only for yourself, but also to protect your family and your community. Those who have been vaccinated will tell their neighbors that it is not fair to get vaccinated, but that if they are not vaccinated, they cause the disease to spread in their own communities. The personal stories told by people who are recovering and those whose loved ones have died will convince people to get vaccinated. Personal stories will have more effect than statistics.

We will overcome the cynicism and mistrust of the past 50 years. When that happens, politicians, podcasters, and media talking heads will read the polls and see their community evolving, and they will evolve with it. We will finally come out on the other side of the pandemic with the kind of community spirit that our parents and grandparents had during World War II.

I hope this utopian fantasy will happen because it has to happen. Otherwise, unvaccinated and unmasked people will spread the virus, incubate more mutant strains, and kill more people. And if we don’t realize this utopian vision, then there is no way that we will be able to overcome all the other problems – too many to list here – that our society faces.

David Galinsky, MD, is an internal medicine physician.

This post appeared on KevinMD.


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