A midnight phone call is never good news.
My sweet and gentle great-uncle was taken to the emergency room last night after collapsing in his old Kentucky home. My grandmother, his youngest sister, was understandably worried. It might be a stroke, she said, or possibly pneumonia. Yet this morning we received another phone call which confirmed what we all suspected: my uncle has Covid-19.
An octogenarian, we all know how this is likely to end. He’s already been put on a CPAP machine to assist in breathing. A cousin who is a nurse called to warn my grandmother that the next step is intubation, and in many cases “they don’t come back from that.” With heavy hearts, my family is preparing for the worst.
Yet as sad as I am over my uncle’s illness, I am furious with him and the people who knowingly led him to the hospital and, quite possibly, the grave. I am also forced to rethink my approach to vaccines. For months I’ve been cautioning against mandating the vaccine, feeling that it was only going to entrench existing skepticism and distrust of government and science. Now, however, I am forced to reckon with the fact that vaccine mandates are our only way out of this pandemic.
My uncle is a deeply religious man. He and his wife both refused vaccines because they believed the Lord would protect them. They were told so by their pastor and fellow parishioners, and there was no reason for them not to believe it. After all, most of the trusted voices they heard were sowing the seeds of distrust over the vaccine anyway. From right-wing shock jocks — several of whom have themselves now died of Covid — to conservative talking heads to Fox News to Republican politicians, the sheer amount of anti-vaccine propaganda folks like my uncle are inundated with is staggering.
Such propaganda drowns out the voices of anyone promoting science, reason, and public health. There were those of us in my uncle’s life who tried to convince him to get the vaccine. Relatives from across the ideological spectrum — Republicans and Democrats, Christians and atheists, old and young — pleaded with him to just get the jab. But even after the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine, he could not be persuaded. “I became a Christian when I was 30,” my uncle told my grandmother, “and I trust in the Lord.”
As a Christian, I respected his faith. I also understood it was misplaced. The Lord helps those who help themselves, as the saying goes, and I along with millions of other Christians — including deeply religious relatives of ours — have helped ourselves to the vaccine. We tried to stand as testament to its safety and efficacy, demonstrating with actions as well as words the importance of vaccination. My uncle and his wife would not and could not be convinced.
By this point, I believe everyone who wants a vaccine and isn’t precluded from vaccination by age or health has been vaccinated. They are free, accessible, and require little time commitment. The holdouts now are the most obstinate, my uncle included. It is too late for my uncle, and I fear too late for those who remain unvaccinated but have not yet caught Covid. It is only a matter of time before they, too, get sick and possibly die.
I’ve spent months talking calmly and rationally to friends, neighbors, and family members who are vaccine-hesitant. I have urged folks on the liberal end of the spectrum not to be so sanctimonious, pointing out there are real reasons why people here in Appalachia and other parts of the country don’t trust pharmaceutical companies and even doctors. Vaccine mandates will not solve the underlying problem, which is a lack of trust in government and science. That’s still true.
But enough is enough. At some point, we must admit that all our outreach, all our understanding, all our compassion is for naught. Folks like my uncle have been brainwashed by conservatives, and there’s nothing I can do about it. They claim this is about their individual liberty, but the fact remains that my uncle — by willingly refusing a vaccine which could have prevented serious illness — is now taking one of the few ICU beds in the country from someone else who might need it. There is no way to spin this: it’s selfish. He put his own foolish individuality above the common good.
The health of the nation as a collective is more important than trying to convince the hesitant of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. It is certainly more important than their perceived individual rights. After all, “vaccine mandates” are nothing new — I had them to enroll in public schools back in the 90s.
Here in Tennessee, colleges require meningococcal meningitis vaccines as well as vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, and more. You can’t travel to certain countries without certain vaccinations. Even the science behind the Covid vaccine is not new; scientists have been developing mRNA vaccines for decades.
For most people, that would be enough. As we say in the South, though, you can’t argue with crazy, and vaccine hesitancy has taken on a certain lunacy. Mandating vaccines where we can — for public schoolteachers, government workers and contractors, the military — is the only way for us to get this pandemic under control.
I pray my uncle makes a full and speedy recovery. I love him. But, I understand the reality of the situation. He is in his 80s and this is a deadly disease. It will likely be the end of him.
And for what? There was a lifeboat in the form of a vaccine, and my uncle refused to board it, deciding instead to go down with the ship that is Covid. Given how infectious this disease is, he’s likely pushed several others overboard by infecting them, too.
There is no logic in that — no dignity, no honor. Vaccine mandates are not just about saving the rest of us from people like my uncle. They’re about saving people like him from themselves.