Bad Faith and the COVID-19 Pandemic


How "belief in things not seen" brought out
the worst in us instead of the best

August 17, 2021
(c) 2021 by Steeplechase Run, Inc.

The virus had all the earmarks of a biblical foe: It was pure evil, attacked indiscriminately, caused immense suffering, and couldn't be negotiated with. It was the kind of enemy perfectly positioned to unite all humanity in an epic struggle that would elevate us above our petty squabbles in a common effort to vanquish an insidious adversary.

It didn't happen that way. And the reason has much to do with the steady erosion of our willingness to forgo cherished beliefs even when hard facts to the contrary intrude.

There's no need to review the details of how virulent and deadly the pandemic has been. Suffice it to say that it changed the entire world, decimating national economies and upsetting balances of political power in a number of countries even while it sowed unspeakable sorrow for millions who lost loved ones. Left unchecked, the scale of the damage would be unimaginable.

Masking and other hygiene protocols were effective but difficult to implement and not sustainable over the long haul. There were only two ways out: a cure or a vaccine.

In the spring of 2019, a few months after the onset of the pandemic, President Donald Trump initiated Project Warp Speed, an all-out, money-is-no-object effort to create a vaccine. It was a Manhattan Project for the 21st century.

At first, hopes for a timely vaccine were dim. The process usually take 4-5 years, and even with some of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies and brightest scientists working on it, the most wildly optimistic estimate for creating a reasonably effective vaccine and scaling up to produce it was two years.

But nobody doubted we'd get there eventually. So the plan was to give those companies and researchers all the money and resources they needed, and to protect the waiting population using a variety of stopgap safety protocols. Those measures would be uncomfortable and burdensome but only moderately so, and they were temporary.

And this is where the wheels fell off. At the exact moment that we should have been pulling together and stepping up to get all of this done, the same man who launched Warp Speed decided instead to politicize the pandemic in a way that polarized the country to a degree not seen since the Civil War.

In the summer of 2020, we were winning. The protocols were inconvenient but the plan was working. Infection rates plummeted, hospitalization eased to the point that severely overburdened medical institutions could free up resources for non-COVID patient, and progress was being reported by the vaccine researchers.

That's just about the time Donald Trump came to a troubling realization: If the economy didn't improve considerably by November, he would very likely lose the presidential election. That being unacceptable, he made the decision to damn the torpedoes and proceed full speed ahead. He demanded that schools, businesses and government offices re-open with full, on-site staffing.

He'd already made a point of never wearing a mask. Now, to drive home his "open everything" policy, he took it to a new level, ridiculing in public those who did. He held rallies where thousands packed together in close quarters without masks, and he harangued the crowds with long, angry rants about the recommended public safety protocols. (Note that Trump made people sign waivers before they were allowed entrance, absolving him and his administration of any liability should attendees contract the virus.) When infections rates, hospitalizations and deaths began to rise again, he ignored them completely, treating the pandemic as though it was already over, telling us all not to worry about it anymore.

His base of unquestioning adherents bought into it with religious zeal. They believed in things that were not only unseen but demonstrably non-existent. All because faith in that president and in a variety of patently absurd conspiracy theories overcame their willingness to process incontrovertible facts and simple logic. The result was the tragic and unnecessary deaths of as many as 200,000 Americans who would still be alive had we just hung a little longer.

We were this close, and we blew it.

But all was not yet lost. In early 2021, the world was stunned to learn that three companies had developed vaccines that were far more effective than even the most optimistic predictions. Barely a year after the pandemic had begun, the vaccines had not only been created but had been proven out in large-scale clinical trials. Funded by Project Warp Speed, the developers had begun scaling up production well in advance of the trial results, the idea being that it would be better to discard tons of bad vaccines than to delay producing what might turn out to be good ones.

It was an honest-to-God medical miracle that nobody had thought possible and that people will still be talking about 100 years from now. It had the ability to save humanity and to return life to normal. It was cause for the kind of jubilation that heralded victory in world wars. In a few months, the pandemic would be over in the United States and, soon after that, the rest of the world.

At least that was the plan. The reality is that millions and millions of people in this country turned their backs on the miracle. Instead of being vanquished, the virus has, with the willing complicity of our fellow citizens, morphed into an even more sinister microbe and reasserted itself with a dark vengeance.

In wartime, people who assist the enemy are called collaborators and traitors. What do we call those who not only fail to resist a viral invader but proactively enable it? What do we call a president who threw the full weight of his administration into developing incredible vaccines, saw to it that his whole family was inoculated, and never said a word in public urging everyone else to get it, too?

We should have had each other's backs on this one. Instead, we're at each other's throats.

I've learned over many years of business negotiations that the best tactic is to sit on your opponents' side of the table. Try to see things from their point of view, without cynicism, and respectfully try to get them to see yours. Never gloat. Never threaten. Never, ever put them up against a wall. The single biggest mistake amateurs make is to set things up so that if you win, the other guy thinks he lost. The goal should be to make everyone think they won.

This is how I've tried to approach talking to people about the COVID-19 vaccine: with gentle persuasion, backed by the force of hard evidence, being respectful of their points of view throughout.

It's not working, for the same reason that debates between science and religion never work: Each side is using a completely different set of rules. On the one hand are the well-defined precepts of mathematics and the physical universe that have been demonstrated and verified. On the other hand is faith, the belief in things not seen. I tell you that carbon dating shows dinosaurs roamed the earth 70 million years ago. You tell me that scripture says the earth is only 6,000 years old. Since our beliefs are premised on two incompatible systems, the argument ends rights there. (Or at least it should; it rages still, futilely, and there's no need for it. Witness the many brilliant scientists who have no problem also being religious, among them Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. They did it by never getting the two confused nor pitting one against the other.)

The net of it is this: A large majority of anti-vaxxers are white, Republican conservatives who believe that Trump is the second coming. Trump, in turn, supports their belief that to be opposed to vaccinations is to be a true American standing up for his rights against the forces of radical liberalism. Their opinions are a matter of faith, not science, and no amount of data, however convincing, is going to change their minds. Their stance has become a movement, even a cult, complete with slogans, logos, memes, websites and, for all we know, secret handshakes. Trying to alter the course of a movement of like-minded zealots is like trying to alter the tides.

One example is enough to prove the point. Interestingly enough, it involves vaccinations, although of a different sort. In 1998 a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a study showing a causal relationship between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and development of autism in young children. Terrified parents, with good reason, began an anti-vaccination movement in response. It soon grew to worldwide proportions and a powerful movement was underway.

It turned out that Wakefield's results and conclusions were not only based on shoddy, unethical and deeply flawed work, he'd also been secretly funded by organizations who were suing vaccine manufacturers. He was struck off the UK medical registry and banned from ever practicing medicine in the UK again. The Lancet, the journal in which he'd published his findings, branded the study "utterly false" and retracted it.

You'd have thought that parents everywhere would have breathed a sigh of relief and the anti-vaccination movement would slip quietly into the night. But it had taken too strong a hold, and its heavily-invested adherents believed that the retraction itself was a scam. As a result, vaccination rates continued to plummet, and diseases long thought dormant, such as the measles, rose again and killed thousands of children. It was another triumph of faith over facts, and not at all a new story. (The movement finally began its decline only after it was discovered that one of its most prominent leaders had had her children secretly vaccinated.)

We find ourselves in a similar situation with COVID-19. It has progressed from a disinclination to get vaccinated into a full-scale movement, complete with—you guessed it—slogans, logos, memes, websites and, for all we know, secret handshakes. Unlike with MMR, however, there is more than one reason. Some believe that the vaccines contain government-manufactured microchips or mind-altering chemicals. Others are adamant that the government can't force them to be inoculated. A few have religious objections. Some believe that the entire pandemic is a hoax. Some feel that there hasn't been enough time to fully assess potential longer-term negative effects of the vaccine. Others are suspicious because the vaccines haven't achieved formal approval and are still being distributed under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

A few of these have some validity, in particular the last two (although it will be interesting to see how many of those suspicious of the EUA get in line with their sleeves rolled up when full approval comes, as it will very soon). Some are patently absurd. But one thing is for sure: There's very little anybody can say or do that's going to change any of these minds, especially when it comes to those who hold Donald Trump in high esteem. None of them is listening to facts or logic, in the same way that Q-Anon believers, Holocaust and moon-landing deniers, and those who believe Trump was cheated out of the 2020 election aren't listening. It's not only useless to try, it's counterproductive, because it only hardens the hearts of those who won't hear. There are many stories emerging of anti-vaxxers getting bad cases of COVID-19 and publicly ruing their decisions even as they lie dying. But it's fantasy to expect most outspoken oppositionists to change their minds and admit they made a mistake. And certainly not when they have the full-throated support of "the base."

Bleak, to be sure, but I wouldn't have started this piece if I didn't have a modest proposal about how to address this situation which is, literally, a matter of life and death.

There has been, understandably, a lot of righteous indignation expressed about the creation of two classes of citizenship, the vaxxed and the unvaxxed. But that's exactly what needs to happen. It is true and correct that government has no basis, moral or legal, to force you into accepting a vaccination. But it does have basis to deprive you of certain rights if you constitute a dangerous risk to the public at large.

Vaccinated people have the right to be protected from people whose likelihood of infection is thousands of times higher than their own. The unvaccinated ought not to be allowed to mingle freely and unmasked with unsuspecting fellow citizens whose health would be put at risk. We don't allow people who have been exposed to typhoid to do that, so there is precedent. The unvaccinated shouldn't be allowed in restaurants or theatres or airplanes or buses or any other venue where social distancing and full-time masking are impractical. It's harsh, yes, but one's rights not to be inconvenienced ends where someone else's right to life begins.

People will declare firmly that this kind of split citizenship idea has to die aborning because it's discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. That is not true; we discriminate legally against people in hundreds of ways. If you don't have a license, you can't drive a car. If you have typhoid fever, you can't fly on a commercial flight. If you've had diarrhea in the past two weeks, you can't swim in a city pool. If you're an ex-felon, you can't vote or own a firearm. And "You Must Be This Tall" to ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland, even if you're forty years old.

The fact is, discrimination is entirely acceptable in all but a handful of narrowly defined cases involving specific "protected classes." These include ethnic minorities, the disabled, and women. Unvaccinated people are not a protected class, nor should they be. Nor should they be allowed to make life hellish for the rest of us.

What about religious exemptions? Exemption from what, exactly: protecting your own life and those of others? If your religion forbids you to get vaccinated, it's your right to adhere to that stricture. It is not your right to have your beliefs put others in jeopardy. Religion has never been easy; people have died gruesome deaths defending the faith. Surely you can wear a mask for yours.

Getting vaccinated isn't just a choice to save your own life. It's an act of grace and mercy towards your fellow citizens. There's no other way, because there's no cure. We can't even take the draconian step of letting the virus run its course and kill everybody it's going to kill and then get on with life, because unchecked propagation will allow it to morph into ever more virulent forms until it kills nearly everybody who isn't vaccinated.

Vaccines have given us the power to literally end this plague within our borders inside of six weeks. If enough people get vaccinated, we could dump our masks, forget all about social distancing, and end the horror of slow, excruciating, suffocating deaths. We can bring the economy back to full roar and restore everyday life to normal. We can let our kids go back to school without fear of getting sick or infecting their families.

We can do it easily.

We're this close.