Lies Beget Tragedy

It is impossible to predict the future, but I can say one thing with utter certainty. Many Americans who are alive today — people who are breathing, laughing, loving — will die in the months ahead from a horrific disease for which there now is remarkably effective protection. In other words, their deaths are, right now, largely preventable. This roll call of the deceased will likely total in the thousands upon thousands, to say nothing of the countless more who will suffer needlessly, perhaps for years to come

Many of these people who will soon be gasping for air in intensive care units are currently boasting of their health, mocking COVID fears as overblown, and flaunting their refusal to get the vaccine. Their proud hubris will not make their deaths less tragic. Families will be torn apart, communities broken, pain and suffering will ripple across generations. Knowing this awaiting tragedy breaks my heart. We can already see it coming.

I find myself thinking often about those who will soon turn from health, to illness, and for some, sadly death. We cannot assign names or faces yet to these looming fates. We do not know who will be struck. Like armies massing for battle we can look around and know many who are among us today will not survive this moment. But unlike war where death strikes with cruel randomness, we can already see that this battle for the health of our country is proceeding like public health professionals had feared. And it all comes back to that vaccine. 

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The national inoculation rate, while pretty impressive, is stalling. And it masks incredible variation, not only at the state level, but county by county. There are many reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Young adults, who even in normal times tend to feel invincible, have gotten the wrong message that COVID isn’t dangerous for them. And they can be a reservoir for it spreading to others. Marginalized communities, who don’t have access to reliable health care and are fearful of a legacy of medical exploitation, also have lower rates. But a particularly fraught vaccine crisis is breaking along our political divide. Supporters of the former president tend to dismiss both the seriousness of the pandemic and the utility of the vaccine. 

In all these cases, misinformation about the vaccine is crowding out the message from doctors and public health officials. Science is being undermined by lies and these lies are deadly. Already we are seeing case rates rising in places of low vaccination rates, just as you would expect. And the danger is only being exacerbated by the new, and very concerning, Delta Variant. It is causing huge spikes in infections around the world, and now in the United States. It has epidemiologists very worried. We all need to pay heed to the experts.

Sadly, lies spreading online are difficult to counteract. But In the case of Republican voters, the source of a lot of the misinformation around the disease and the vaccine is readily apparent. All one has to do is watch or listen to rightwing media and the politicians who seek to curry favor, votes, and money by shamelessly basking in dangerous ignorance. This is not some shadow disinformation campaign. It is a cult of thinking that permeates one of the two major political parties of the country. Not all Republicans, to be sure, feel this way. A lot of local officials in particular are trying to advocate for vaccines. But the chest thumping, proud dismissal of experts, the “COVID precautions are tyranny on par with the Nazis” crowd isn’t listening. They have been basking in this toxic insanity now for years.

We are living in a moment of surreal societal chasms. We are being split into factions, where objectively superficial differences are exploited by those who seek power and wealth by dividing us. These cynical men and women use lies and fear-mongering to rile up their base. In truth, they see these masses as pawns for them and their cronies to play with and sacrifice. How many of the executives or on-air hosts at Fox News do you think haven’t been vaccinated?

The pull of disinformation, rising in its volume and ubiquity in the echo chambers of our current media landscape, is too strong for many to resist. History teaches us that we humans are susceptible to lies, and often the bigger the lies the more indelible is their impact. We are drawn to seek protection in the familiar, to see “others” as threats. Our socialization, education, and governmental structure has provided a counterbalance at times to our baser and more destructive instincts. But the danger always lurks for our unity to falter, especially when it is assaulted from within our national ranks.  

Republican elected officials have realized that they can win in the short term by absolving themselves of any responsibility for planning for the future. We can see this in the tax cuts that never pay for themselves, the dismissal of our climate crisis, the forgoing of desperate infrastructure needs, the wars of choice that are started but not finished, the assault on education funding, and any other host of issues. This is not only a partisan problem. Democrats have faltered many times in planning for the future. There is something particularly human it seems that elevates the immediate crises over those that loom over the horizon. But the Republicans have weaponized this instinct to wage war on their political opponents, and on the truth. 

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The toll of this assault can be measured in many ways, and the bill for inaction is coming due. Like the horrific tragedy of the building collapse in Florida, we know that waiting to address our structural problems — both the literal and the figurative — is a prelude to calamity. It is how we have hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from COVID, and the many more that will come. It is how we have the continued deterioration of our climate. It is how we have entrenched racial injustice. As I mentioned above, so much of the pain we are now feeling can be avoided. That we aren’t doing so on a wide host of issues only compounds the scale of tragedy. 

But I want to end this essay with a countervailing observation that was also in the news recently. The Supreme Court decided not to hear a case around transgender bathrooms, thus leaving in place a lower court ruling that allowed a Virginia student to use the bathroom of his choice, overruling a local school board. Now this is likely not the final say in this matter, but it is progress nonetheless. In my book What Unites Us, I wrote about how far we as a nation (and me personally) have come on LGBTQ rights, even though there is still a long way to go. And I hold this up as not only worthy of celebration on its own merits, but a sign that progress even against seemingly impossible odds, is possible. 

We are likely in for many difficult challenges ahead. This pandemic is not over. Our democracy is under attack. We have a long way to go for racial justice. All this is true. But there can also be victories. We can also change the fate of the future. We can see hope, particularly in younger generations. What we need is to not give up. To not lose our own humanity. 

The cult around the former president is strong, and it is dangerous. It is literally a matter of life and death — fueled by lies. But the fact that it is built upon lies can also be its undoing. Ultimately, none of us can dismiss reality in the long term. The vaccine is proof of that. The virus doesn’t care what Tucker Carlson says. It will exploit weakness and be repelled by strength. Science is strength. The truth is strength. And I cannot help but think that these strengths will ultimately win out. 

So I come to you with both sadness, and hope. Reality is here and it will teach its lessons. We can, and I suspect we will, adapt and build resilience. But we will have done so on a foundation of a delaying of action that was unnecessary. And this will leave unnecessary pain and suffering in its wake.  

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