“Sucks to Be You” ethics revisited

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Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds declared the Covid pandemic over in her state yesterday, saying the state’s feeble measures to contain the coronavirus and address hospital needs are “no longer feasible or necessary.” Meanwhile, many Iowa hospitals remained stretched to the max, relying on “traveler” staff and “locums” to maintain services. Reynolds has no apparent plans for preparing for any future waves of the virus or to vaccinate the large straggler population in the state.

I preserve here my prediction that future history accounts will unkindly read something like this:

The 2020-2022 Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying social turmoil came to a messy and inconclusive end when vaccine opponents and vaccine advocates separately arrived at an ethical position of “Sucks to be you!” regarding the persistent number of annual deaths from the disease and its stubborn variants occurring on their opposite sides of the vaccine debate.

I first wrote about this crassly-named “Sucks to be you!” ethic right at the beginning of the pandemic in May of 2020. Some high-mitigation countries were successfully tamping down the first wave of the coronavirus while the U.S. death numbers kept rising exponentially. America had its skeptics and opponents of the most basic mitigations from the start. This rather crude tag refers to the minimization of empathy and dismissal of the pain and tragedy that Covid has brought to many families.

When the first Covid deaths in 2020 were largely elderly people in nursing homes (“God’s waiting room,” in the words of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) and immigrant workers in meatpacking plants ignored by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a common contrarian position emerged that 99.9% (or pick your own percentage from out of your butt) of people were not dying of this disease. Their social media posts often bore the tone of “Old people die!” or “Too bad, so sad!” or “Sucks to be you!” if you or a loved one contracted a severe or fatal form of Covid-19.

Then came the vaccine in 2021 followed by the omicron wave of the virus that carried over into 2022. The demographic mix of casualties diverged:

CDC-vaccinations

Covid deaths as of December 4, 2021. Source: Centers for Disease Control

The 2022 shift to schadenfreude

Once the vaccine and boosters found their statistically amazing success (see the above graph), the critics seemed to get only more adamant at denying the statistics. Even Donald Trump’s belated and weak endorsement of the vaccines was meet with derision. But many willing adopters of the vaccine also had a change of attitude. As our own risk of dying from Covid has statistically plummeted, the news of vocal antivaxxers dying of Covid, likely unnecessarily, is now often met with a sense of schadenfreude, that great German noun that means a feeling of pleasure at the expense of another’s pain. The social media site Reddit has even created a forum entitled “The Herman Cain Award” to “honor” the most obnoxious antivaxxer deaths, named after the former Republican candidate for president who was both an early Covid denier and an early winner of his own award.

Skip the “probabilities talk” for a minute. We are approaching 900,000 deaths from Covid in the United States, and we will likely hit one million deaths sometime this year, even if the current variant subsides. That is, in absolute terms, a huge number of deaths from any single cause, and it far exceeds the death count of the countries who imposed harsher mitigations.

And recognize that we are usually not yet counting the deaths of “long Covid” survivors who, up to two years later, are dying from another condition in a Covid-weakened state. Throughout this pandemic, the anti-mitigation crowd has dismissed the deaths of people over 65, especially those with some identified “co-morbidity.” As I have posted in the past, insurance actuaries normally place their bets on a much rosier life outlook for people who have reached “a certain age,” many, if not most, of whom have at least one co-morbidity (including me). The partial life expectancy table below shows the actuarial “remaining years” 50-50 bet line:

The rationalizations

The primary ethical casualty of this pandemic, especially in America’s more conservative branches of Christianity, has been the downgrading as a religious virtue and a “public good” the collective qualities of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. For the large group of Fox News watchers who have downplayed the death statistics throughout the pandemic, the attitude of “The odds of dying are slim” has been the operative rationalization since the beginning. Thus, the victims, especially if you do not know them personally, were “just unlucky.”

It has been a rougher road to rationalization for those who have watched someone close to them die of Covid (or more commonly, had to “say goodbye” via iPad), or those who have passed their own infection onto Grandma, who then died. Theologian Frederick Buechner (a favorite of mine for pithy quotes) wrote that “It is about as hard to absolve yourself of your own guilt as it is to sit in your own lap.” [1]

I have long maintained that the continued popularity of the emotional Jimmy Swaggart-style “Saved Wretch” sub-culture of Christian worship and classic Catholic confession of are largely sustained due to Buechner’s observation. Beneath stoic exteriors, “the burden of sin” and fear of death still weighs heavily on many Christians. We can try to live our lives after condemning a loved one to an early death from Covid, but for normal people, the self-owned stain never quite goes away, even if undeserved. However, most Covid deniers have so far escaped this circumstance and thus, “Sucks to be them!”

Jimmy Swaggart: "I have sinned!"

“I have sinned!”

Not to disagree with Mr. Buechner, but the conservative social media has done a remarkable job at minimizing the knowledge of, and impact on, their audience of the nearly one million “out of their time” excess deaths since 2020. We have become as sadly inured to death from Covid as we have from continued mass shootings in the schools and on the streets.

For those of us in the vaccinated and boosted crowd, on the other hand, we have entered into a new statistical reality, as evidenced by that first chart’s documentation of the low number of Covid deaths among those who have adopted a “science-has-a-liberal-bias religion.” I would liken this to an imagined world where drunk drivers die from traffic accidents much more often than they currently do, and that “innocent victims” of those drunk drivers are more rare. I may feel some level of compassion for those “who can’t help it,” but that Herman Cain Award “Sucks to be you!” rationale gets kind of hard to repress. This is especially true in regard to those Covid antivaxxers who make very public pronouncements of resistance, only to succumb needlessly after avoiding a free shot.

The unintended casualties of our culture war

After a period in the summer of 2021 where the fully-vaccinated were “feeling their oats” and venturing out in public again, the omicron variant hit the immunocompromised fragile-though-vaccinated folks especially hard. Two years of careful avoidance, followed by a back-door virus attack is a particularly cruel fate. We were reminded that humans are often but the “domesticated cattle” of the millions of ever-evolving bacteria and viruses that depend on us to live and reproduce. The coronavirus is perhaps Darwin’s revenge for our failure to teach evolution in our schools. We could have repressed the virus much further and saved thousands of lives, but ignorance prevailed.

We are likely already living in the messy end of this pandemic. The unvaccinated adamantly refuse even the most reasonable and effective mitigations while the young vaccinated-and-boosted want to just get on with their lives. Meanwhile, as many as seven million immunocompromised Americans live daily knowing that a jackass relative who refuses to wear a mask while Covid-positive could kill them.

In “God language” terms, “We have sinned mightily!” It will be the “long tail” casualties of this disease that will naggingly testify of our new “Sucks to be you!” ethic. But as for me and my house, we will keep our masks handy for a while.


Notes:

  1. Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973, p. 35). Later editions were subtitled “A Seeker’s ABC.

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