I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend in how people are talking about covid-19. As vaccines have become widely available in the U.S., people are treating the unvaccinated with scorn and anger. Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey even went so far as to say “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the new surge in the pandemic. In USA Today, opinion columnist Michael Stern said we should be “shunning” the unvaccinated while calling them “half-witted.”
The anger toward the unvaccinated mirrors similar sentiments seen during climate disasters in Republican-leaning states whose representatives have blocked action. But even if you’re personally frustrated by those who choose not to get vaccinated or vote against climate policies, wishing sickness or harm upon individuals for their choices, no matter how misguided, is wrong and cruel. Instead, we need to be thinking about how people’s world views are shaped, and how to fix the systems that have polluted our discourse.
There was a certain schadenfreude for some who watched the Texas cold snap this past winter leave millions without power and heat in below-freezing temperatures. The state is dominated by Republicans legislators who have denied climate change and blocked policies to address carbon pollution (or supported rules that favour the fossil fuel industry). The sentiment of wishing suffering on the people who elected these folks isn’t new, either. A 2019 Washington Post analysis found that a surprisingly large number of Americans think that climate deniers deserve to suffer in extreme weather. More than two-thirds of those who felt deniers got what they deserved were Democrats.
These perspectives are wholly unhelpful because neither unvaccinated people nor those who are hit by climate disasters are a monolith. The former includes all kids under 12. Some who are undergoing treatment for cancer may also not be in the ideal condition to get a vaccine. Though pregnant people can get vaccinated — and the scientific community has said it’s likely safe for them to do so — the data on the safety of vaccines for pregnant people is limited, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. And getting jabbed can make you feel awful for a couple days, which can make it a difficult prospect for those who can’t afford to take time off from work.
There’s also a long racist history in the medical field that has led to distrust among Black and Indigenous communities. While there have been efforts to overcome that and get folks vaxed, it’s still a work in progress.
Just as not all unvaccinated people are rabid covid-19 deniers, the South isn’t all Republican-voting climate deniers, either. The same freakishly cold temperatures that took most of Texas’ power capacity offline in February also left people in the progressive, mostly Black town of Jackson, Mississippi, without water for days.
But those who have spent years voting Republican and deny that either covid-19 or the climate crisis shouldn’t just be left to die either. People’s opinions don’t come from nowhere — we’re all products of our environments. Should we really blame individuals for internalizing the narratives they hear spouted by politicians and media? While some Republican politicians like Ivey or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have recently turned a corner and are pushing people to get vaccinated, there are still a large number of prominent Republicans either spouting misinformation (like McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul) or saying nothing at all.
Take former President Donald Trump, who spent a whole year spewing misinformation about the coronavirus. He recently turned around and said he “recommends” people get the vaccine while claiming they aren’t getting vaccinated because “they don’t trust the [Biden] administration.” It’s a weak message at best, one the former president undercut with his own words. Anyone tuning into Fox News or any other conservative media is also bombarded with misinformation about the vaccine just as they are about climate change.
It’s undoubtedly true the unvaccinated are putting strain on hospitals and that more than 99% of deaths from covid-19 in recent weeks are those who haven’t received the vaccine. But wishing them death isn’t going to solve those issues. Nor will cheering on climate disasters in red states make it any more likely a Green New Deal — or any climate policy for that matter — comes to fruition.
In the long term, we clearly need to fight against false narratives and hold powerful people accountable for spreading them. And we need to make sure everyone has the information they need to make well-informed decisions. What we can’t do is wish for anti-vaxxers to get sick or perish in hurricanes. We need to maintain our compassion and realise people’s opinions don’t form in a vacuum.