Let’s flip the script on those who have rejected their role in quelling the pandemic and demanded their right to control their own bodies. It’s time to recapture common sense. Those who have advocated for increasingly unmoored and unfounded responses to the pandemic can’t stigmatize, criticize, mock, or abuse (physically or verbally) those who want to take heightened care in yet another challenging period of the pandemic. All across the globe, long before the pandemic, individuals in advanced societies covered their faces for various reasons — without question or issue from others.
Those who are immunocompromised (notably because they have survived cancer or are undergoing treatment for it), disabled, older, overweight, members of communities of color, or who have underlying health conditions may not be required to. But they certainly may choose to be safe and healthy rather than sorry. They may keep wearing upgraded masks, maintain distances, reduce their socializing with others, and avoid closed and poorly ventilated indoor spaces as well as mass gatherings.
If they haven’t gotten vaccinated or received their boosters, they may choose to do so now (and they may get their flu shots, too).
If appropriate, they may get tested for infection. And if they have been exposed or infected, they will choose to quarantine or isolate for time as recommended by experienced public health experts and their own doctors.
If parents eventually find regulators’ decisions, based on careful reviews of available data, persuasive about the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines for kids — soon, perhaps, including those younger than 5 — let’s have nary a peep about their decision to vaccinate their families.
Normalizing death is unacceptable
Does this all sound like a radical notion? Consider that the U.S. pandemic death toll climbs by the day toward 1 million or more. It may already have exceeded that grim figure, which, for perspective’s sake would make this health calamity have a toll akin to some estimates of the Rwandan genocide or more than four times the deaths attributed to six years of ugly famine in Somalia and four times the toll of the disastrous 2011 Haitian quake.
Sure, the Omicron surge is receding, with infections and hospitalizations falling fast. The disease’s deaths remain unacceptably high (2,600+ as a daily average), fatalities are spiking in many states, including the New York Times reports in South Carolina, Colorado, Virginia, and Mississippi. Many hospitals have yet to dig out of demoralizing chasm of units jammed with coronavirus pandemic and treated by exhausted medical staff.
Maybe, as experts suggest, the nation is edging into a new, different, and moderated phase of the pandemic. Or maybe this is another lull before the tens of millions of unvaccinated provide the opportunity for the wily virus to mutate into yet another variant — maybe this one as contagious as Omicron and lethal and debilitating as Delta. Or maybe it is worse. Or better. History provides grim lessons about calling a premature end to pandemics.
How will we know, though, that the worst is past and we’re free — or freer — of an awful illness that may leave as many as tens of millions of those infected with the coronavirus with sustained, serious health problems, including substantially higher risks for heart diseases?
Doubling down on the battle against bunk
How about sticking with (or returning to) the best available, rigorous research and medical-scientific expertise? It may shift. It may be difficult to hear. It may require brain processing, rather than emotional reacting, or allowing cognitive misfires to rule.
For those of us who haven’t resorted to the intellectual equivalent of Ouija-board thinking, it’s time to double down on major personal and societal initiatives to quash what the World Health Organization described as an “epidemic” of anti-science disinformation. We need to recognize in our lives the rampant presence of medical bunk — and to even better inform ourselves and our loved ones so we safeguard our health and our lives. As a recent Opinion essay in the New York Times reported:
“It’s clear that misinformation harms human health, stokes panic, wastes money and leads people to miss opportunities to pursue options that could have helped. But the new fire hose of bunk is also harming us in less obvious ways. It’s hitting our fractured societies — and, we believe, contributing to further polarization.”
We can cheer the ways that powerful technology can connect and inform us. But we also must realize, the Opinion authors Julia Belluz and John Lavis say, that podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Substack and more also have unleashed unverified, unreliable, and unmoored utterances that we need to stop, think about, check (with reputable, rigorous sources), and stop spreading and supporting. They argue this:
“[W]e need to prevent false or misleading health claims from reaching millions of people in the first place. Doing this won’t be easy. It will require a mix of strategies, tailored to different platforms and groups. E-commerce sites like Amazon could introduce content warnings or adjust their pricing and ranking algorithms for health products and books that have been flagged for misinformation. Governments could also step in and mandate evidentiary standards for a broader range of health statements than the pharmaceutical and food claims they currently regulate. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify could introduce fact-checking for their nonfiction health content. They could provide additional context, including links to credible information sources, or adjust their algorithms to limit the spread of health misinformation. They could also play an educational role, developing programs that improve media and information literacy. The best health bunk prevention of all may be education. Two randomized-control trials carried out in Uganda showed that schoolchildren and their parents can be taught to vet the reliability of health-treatment claims and make more informed decisions. If similar approaches became mainstream, we’d have little armies of lie detectors everywhere who could prevent dubious health figures from ever getting a big platform.
“We also need approaches that would have an impact across the web, like raising the stakes for health professionals who, as two health care experts fighting disinformation wrote, are “weaponizing their white coats” to mislead the public. Right now, state medical regulatory bodies focus on individual patient encounters, not the role doctors might play as healers for the masses. The American Medical Association has commented occasionally on public-facing physicians, yet while doctor disinformation has only worsened in the pandemic, few physicians have been reprimanded by their state boards. Whatever strategies companies and governments embrace, they must also protect other priorities, like well-functioning markets and freedom of expression.”
We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all. We cannot ignore disease and death and embrace nihilism and fatalism. We cannot allow anti-science fanatics to destroy centuries of progress with the viral spread of ever-wilder fantasies and conspiracies. Our health system, the envy of the world, cannot be a toy to be smashed and ruined by selfish belligerence. We need to consider not just how we race back to normal but also to a better, healthier tomorrow for all.