Dr. Jonas Salk, pictured here, developed the polio vaccine, which has saved millions of lives. A simple story about a polio victim changed the writer’s mind. (Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center)
As hospitals again fill up with COVID-19 cases, the vaccinated are getting angrier at the unvaccinated. I get the anger. I also get what it feels like to be on the other side. Being an anti-vaxxer is a lot like being an evangelical Christian, and I’ve been both.
In the evangelical church of my adolescence, I was taught to believe we had a corner on The Truth. We had a duty to remain true to the “good news.” We accepted that we might be “persecuted” for our beliefs, but we were sure that the evidence (mainly the Bible) was entirely on our side. Our beliefs created a powerful sense of belonging. I was in the evangelical church long before social media, but the church’s vibrant youth program met all my social needs in a similar way. It was the equivalent of a Facebook bubble.
I fled from evangelicalism only to fall into another errant subculture when I was pregnant with my first child. I had been getting truly helpful care from holistic medical practitioners who, unfortunately, were convinced that vaccinations are damaging. I can scarcely believe it now, but once again I drank the Kool-Aid. The literature I absorbed — all published independently or by small presses — promised that if I raised my children “naturally,” I wouldn’t need vaccines to protect them from communicable diseases.
Like evangelicals who reject secularism, many of those who reject vaccines find identity, solidarity and even a kind of salvation in that rejection. The comments in response to infamous anti-vaxxer Christiane Northrup’s web page on vaccines are illustrative. Northrup, for years a well-respected M.D. specializing in women’s health, is now identified as one of the “disinformation dozen” by the Center for Confronting Digital Hate.
Her readers post about “an entire civilization” becoming “so ignorant.” They talk about the “wiser path,” and they thank her for “spreading the truth.” They express fears of being discriminated against. One respondent writes, “See, I was born ‘knowing.’”
Their language echoes that of evangelicals and is easy to dismiss, yet the stories they tell are of genuine anguish, of dealing with frightening illnesses that are truly hard to live with. One woman connects a friend’s flu shot in pregnancy to the child’s diagnosis of autism two years later. Sure, it sounds far-fetched, and we might feel exasperated by the misinformation, but a child with autism is a difficult thing. The kind of thing that cries out for compassion.
A liberal arts education got me out of the evangelical community. Novels like Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” dismantled a worldview that I had accepted as fact. All the literature I read and subjects I studied presented so many different realities that I came to understand how much the church had created mine, and how easily I could un-create it. I suddenly had access to the interior thoughts of literature’s great characters, who gave me a broader vision of the world.
As for vaccines, a simple story about a disabled man got me out of the anti-vaxx movement. The man in the story had contracted polio and lost the use of his legs after the vaccine became widely available. I suddenly realized the risk I was taking with my children’s health and lives.
I’m deeply embarrassed by my former participation in both movements. I can say unequivocally that I never want to be so out of touch with reality again.
At the same time, I can also say that I do have compassion for those who today choose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. I know from experience that they are feeding themselves such a steady and complete diet of falsehoods that they not only can’t absorb the science, they can’t work out the basic common sense that easily informs other areas of their lives.
I also know that once you dig beneath the bravado of certainty, falsehoods are a very scary place to live. If the rest of the world doesn’t buy your beliefs, or if some of their competing arguments jibe with your own common sense, then on some level you can’t help wondering if you’re wildly wrong. And if you are, what are the implications?
I don’t want to suggest that I’m never angry at vaccine refusal. I’m currently living with chronic fatigue syndrome; I’m scared to death that even a mild bout of COVID could exacerbate my symptoms and cause a layering of long COVID over the fatigue I already suffer. I’m angry that my college-age daughter will have to once again restrict her activities at school this fall. I’m angry that my 86-year-old mother with a history of heart problems is growing depressed about a return to a sequestered life.
I honestly don’t know whether anger or compassion (or doses of both) will get us to a fully vaccinated world. Anger tends to make people dig in their heels. But, on the other hand, compassion is slow medicine, and we don’t have a lot of time. People are dying right now. People are living with long COVID right now. And more will be infected and die as the Delta variant spreads and other variants inevitably crop up.
Also, I’m not sure how compassion works when it’s directed toward people who disdain it. To be compassionate means to “suffer with.” Evangelicals and anti-vaxxers don’t feel they’re suffering; they think we’re suffering.
So what’s the answer? We’re moving toward mandates — for which there is ample precedent — but they may be a two-edged sword. Mandates will undoubtedly prevent suffering when skeptics get vaccinated. They may also cause suffering — though presumably not death — when people who still refuse vaccination lose jobs or relationships or are further alienated from sound medical treatments.
I’d like to think education could help. But all that wisdom I got from the likes of Alice Walker during my college education occurred far from home, which allowed me to leave my evangelical identity behind and forge a new path. Few people have such a luxury, even if they want it.
The media also play a key role: Americans embraced the polio vaccine partly because children in wheelchairs, on crutches, and in iron lungs were so tragically visible. Similarly, we need more graphic documentation of the costs of COVID. It sounds horrible, I know, but I think we need to see COVID patients on ventilators and struggling to recover. Health care privacy law rightly prevents hospitals from documenting the suffering without patient consent, but could more patients be persuaded to share their experiences in photos, audio and video?
In the end, I come back to the idea of story, like “The Color Purple” and the story I read about the man disabled by polio.
Here’s where I think compassion may play a role. I left evangelicalism and the community of anti-vaxxers because of stories that were well told, impactful and true in a way that goes far beyond facts. Those stories changed my life — twice. Perhaps compassion in the case of vaccine hesitancy means telling and sharing stories that take us right to the fortress of fears and lies, stories that keep us pinned there, sharing and telling, until something shifts.
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