New Year’s Day, 2022
Last night a friend of mine’s nine-year-old grandson had to wait hours in the emergency room for care after he was bitten by a dog. The medical staff were busy with COVID patients. Overwhelmingly unvaccinated COVID patients.
I’ve had it. I’ve heard one too many stories of people who need medical care being unable to access emergency room care or hospital beds or surgeries or ambulances when they need them. I’m guessing that you have heard your share of such stories, too. In any case, it has pushed me over the edge. Why? Because unvaccinated people are overwhelming the health care system. The people who declined the chance to be vaccinated now come gasping for medical attention. Apparently, 95 percent of the people in hospitals with COVID are unvaccinated. And the drain on health care workers, hospital rooms, and general medical access surges along with the virus.
As a generalization, the right-wing political discourse tends to emphasize personal responsibility. According to this narrative, the welfare queens, the drug addicts, the unwed mothers, and the poor in general suffer from a lack of personal responsibility. They just want “society” to fix their problems. It’s been an effective narrative for generations, and it has eroded our sense of community and mutuality.
But maybe there’s a place for that narrative in our current cultural and medical crisis. Although I say it with some reservations and the knowledge that a more nuanced discussion is necessary, what if we said something like this?
“I respect your right to make decisions for yourself about your body and health choices. You should not be forced to be vaccinated. And, along with that recognition of personal responsibility you will also take responsibility for the possible consequence of your choice. If you do contract COVID, you will not be allowed to access medical care. Your family or friends can take care of you to the best of their ability or willingness.”
Or, if that’s going too far – “You will simply be personally responsible for all costs associated with your illness. No insurance coverage, no Medicaid, no GoFundMe campaign. You can put your money where your unmasked mouth is.”
There would be exceptions for children and for the very, very small number of people who might have a valid medical reason to avoid vaccination.
All I am asking is for people to have the courage of their convictions. I recognize that the chances of dying from Covid are about 1 in 150 and the chances of severe symptoms are about 1 in 6. If someone wants to take that risk, it’s their choice. But even at those odds, the danger is not so much to the average person, but to the health care system that cares for those that don’t beat the odds. And that’s a lot of people.
I say this with great moral trepidation, as I like to think that compassion and kindness and community are core values of mine. I wrote a book about the centrality of the parable of the Samaritan to civilization. But is there a flip side to compassion? Part of being compassionate is standing up when one is oppressed by another. I see how the anti-vaxxers’ choices are hurting others, and I can’t help thinking they should simply live with a radical personal responsibility, one that they in theory would espouse.
Your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. We don’t make choices like these in a vacuum. We share the air of our common spaces and the chairs in our emergency rooms. At the very least I believe that society has no obligation to support someone who has made a fully informed choice that leads to ill health. Some insurance companies offer deductions for exercise and non-smoking. We have people sign waivers before they engage in high-risk activities. How is this different?
The question of personal responsibility expands when we consider those in the media and the political sphere who have deliberately spread misinformation and lies that have led to such a pervasive resistance to science. They deserve a harsher consequence, especially as many of them have subsequently availed themselves of vaccines, often on the sly. And their rhetoric contributes to the ongoing degradation of trust in government and science.
But in the end, we have to assume that people are making informed decisions about their bodies. It’s the essence of freedom. Gloria Steinem says that democracy begins with our ability to control our own bodies. Surely anti-vaxxers would agree. And democracy proceeds with the understanding that we live with the consequences of those decisions.
I’m happy to start a GoFundMe campaign to have lawyers draw up the necessary legal documents for anti-vaxxers to waive their right to medical care. If they are correct that vaccines don’t work, or that it’s all a hoax, or that Bill Gates is making a bundle, or that ivermectin or silver or garlic can immunize them, then there’s no harm done in signing away those rights.
Stand up for freedom. And responsibility. And make some room in the hospitals for those who aren’t there by choice.