The Parable of the Two Pandemics
Which man hath the greater sin?
2021 has seen the rise of a new genre in op-ed writing. I call it “the angry COVID nurse” op-ed. They can vary in aggressiveness and shrillness of tone, but they generally hit the same core beats: 1) I’m really angry/frustrated/tired. 2) It’s your fault that I’m so angry/frustrated/tired, because you won’t get vaccinated. 3) Get vaccinated already, idiots.
Sometimes, the formula takes the shape of a viral video instead, generally with even worse results. See, for example, this Alberta nurse ranting that urgent care should be rationed at the expense of the unvaccinated. Most specimens of the genre stop short of this point, but many are still playing a blame game. For obvious reasons, such op-eds enjoy wide circulation in mainstream outlets like the Huffington Post or the LA Times. (Meanwhile, people have noted the irony that other valuable frontline workers are now losing their jobs en masse for vaccine hesitancy, their courageous dedication discounted, their usefulness to The Narrative expired.)
For the Times op-ed, by Dr. Anita Sircar, we can assume that Dr. Sircar herself didn’t write the headline “I’m running out of compassion for the unvaccinated.” But someone did. And Sircar does use the phrase “compassion fatigue” in the body of the piece. For our consideration, she presents a middle-aged man succumbing to COVID in her ward. He tells her he’s “not an anti-vaxxer or anything,” he’d just been waiting for FDA approval before becoming “the government’s guinea pig.” Sircar cares for the man while fuming under her N-95. Now that he’s dead, she wants to make sure we understand this is all on him:
The burden of this pandemic now rests on the shoulders of the unvaccinated. On those who are eligible to get vaccinated but choose not to, a decision they defend by declaring, “Vaccination is a deeply personal choice.” But perhaps never in history has anyone’s personal choice affected the world as a whole as it does right now. When hundreds and thousands of people continue to die — when the most vulnerable members of society, our children, cannot be vaccinated — the luxury of choice ceases to exist.
This is chilling talk regardless, but the essay also contains no serious engagement with the deceased gentleman’s actual concerns, nor the concerns of others like him. Because this is not that sort of essay.
In fact, contra David French, it is perfectly possible to question the prevailing COVID narrative while not being a conspiracist, a white nationalist, a white evangelical, or a white evangelical nationalist. Just look at a sober evaluation of the hospitalization data, or ask the JCVI in the UK about adverse effects of the vaccine for younger men’s hearts. Or this woman’s story, or this girl’s. Or any of these stories, compiled on a site with a “pro-vaccine, pro-science” splash page. These latter include reports of sudden-onset debilitating pain and inflammation, paresis, and more. I myself can contribute from my own circle the case of a loved one with a confirmed vaccine injury after a single Pfizer dose, now facing an array of symptoms that present like Guillaine-Barre or CIDP. So, suffice it to say, the debate is not nearly as one-sided as it is popularly painted.
And it’s not just an academic debate. Dallas doctors have been forced to walk back triage rubrics that would privilege the vaccinated. As the argument initially went, the rubric was purely based on objective survivability considerations. But by the end of the Dallas News report, as awkward questions are raised about disparate impact for racial minorities, the invisible lines between “deserving” and “undeserving” unvaccinated are coming into focus. Other stories have leaked out: People on transplant waitlists turned away here, an Alabama doctor refusing to see unvaccinated patients there.
Last month, The Washington Post hosted competing op-eds on the subject, with Ruth Marcus flatly saying “Vaccine resisters are different,” and doctors should “put their thumb on the scale” accordingly. Nancy Gibbs demurs, but she doesn’t exactly demur robustly. She still has to imply that doctors and nurses who treat the unvaxxed are doing something supererogatory.
That sense of supererogatory effort also hangs about certain of the “frustrated nurse” op-eds, the “I love my patients but…” op-eds. A good example is this Arc Digital piece by Daniel Summers. He routinely asks new patients if they’ve been vaccinated or have plans to be if not. Sometimes, he’s met with stubborn resistance. In such cases, “I summon what cheer I can still muster and do my best to maintain the warm and friendly demeanor I strive for when I see patients, and move on. It takes effort.” “For months,” he rants, “there have been safe, effective, accessible, free vaccines that would have kept this catastrophe at bay. Just sitting right fucking there.” In conclusion, he laments the fact that more people won’t simply take his recommendation on faith:
Many will believe a bad study about vaccine side effects on the heart, rather than my interpretation of that study, or the unsubstantiated word of a pop star, rather than mine. Many will trust me enough on all manner of other matters, but not the one that presses most upon our lives. Many will not do all they can to keep schools from being a place where the virus can be easily passed.
And I will keep asking and trying and caring as best I can, regardless of that decision, because I love my patients and I love my work and I chose this profession for a reason. But I am so very tired.
On Twitter, I suggested an exercise: Take this op-ed and re-write it, but pretend it’s not 2021. Pretend it’s 1991. And replace the question “When do you plan to get vaccinated?” with “When do you plan to stop having promiscuous sex?”
I’m not the first person to notice the parallels, or the double standard. In fact, it’s gay pundits like Chad Felix Greene who have noted it most pointedly. When George Takei tweeted that the “willfully unvaccinated” shouldn’t receive priority treatment, Greene said, “This sounds very much like the arguments used against gay men and HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s.” This drew a backlash, but Greene held firm, expanding his categories to include other perceived “undeserving” patients. “How about drug overdoses? Or obese people?” In a later tweet, he recalled watching repeat overdosed patients take up scarce beds in crisis periods. But in his judgment, “It doesn’t matter. You treat everyone equally. A hospital is no place for moral debate over what kind of person ‘deserves’ treatment.”
Ruth Marcus anticipates this line in her WaPo op-ed arguing for rationed care. But she counters that it’s hard for addicts to quit, which makes them more “deserving” than the willfully unvaxxed. She would doubtless complain in the same way about Greene’s comparison to the AIDS pandemic. There would only be a true parallel, she would argue, if gay men had been refusing a vaccine. Instead, they were being urged to stop having risky promiscuous sex, which by some standards is a far less legitimate ask.
And there’s the rub: In our culture’s new moral calculus, the man who refuses a vaccine has the greater sin than the man who won’t stop fornicating. So, you see, we never outgrew the notion of sin. We’ve simply replaced old sins with new. And so far from offering a word of balance in our current moment, Christian voices like Francis Collins are piling on: “Citizens, we will not escape history,” he intones. “Do you want to be looked at… 10 years from now and defend what you did when in fact, we are losing tens of thousands of lives that didn’t have to die?” This bears out a point made by Antonio García Martínez in conversation with Tom Holland—that in the Passion play of history, the casting of the Roman centurion is just as important as the casting of the Christ.
Of course, Marcus’s argument fails on the even more fundamental level that there is a duty of care for even the most universally agreed-upon sinner. Ironically, she might benefit from the self-reflection of aid worker Ruth Coker Burks, whose AIDS memoir All the Young Men chronicles firsthand the revulsion that drove more hardened hospital staff to neglect the dying men in their care. Yet Burks found even her own compassion was not limitless. This was vividly borne in on her when she encountered two sick Klansmen, dubiously claiming they caught the virus through a blood transfusion. Her patience starts to wear thin as they lie cursing “those faggots,” surrounded by poor man’s Confederate decor. After giving them clipped instructions, she leaves her number but says she won’t be “dropping in.”
In fact, she does return twice before getting the final call. “I didn’t feel relief,” she recalls, “but I did feel saved from the obligation of caring for them. And I wondered if this is what people who hated gay men told themselves when they died.”
If Ruth Marcus and her chattering-class colleagues are too invested in their COVID narrative to concede the legitimate points of the vaccine-hesitant, one might have hoped they would at least not forget what a Hippocratic oath means. But it appears they lack even this much self-awareness.
Substance matters, of course. My earlier suggestion for a “replacement exercise” with Daniel Summers’ “frustrated nurse” piece wasn’t meant to say there would be nothing legitimate in such a “pandemic-swapped” essay. There could be something to the weary frustration of a nurse whose patients were willfully engaging in active, reckless self-harm—like promiscuous sex, or drug abuse. If we’re looking for contemporary parallels, the AIDS epidemic might be most meaningfully mapped onto the opioid crisis. In both cases, you have communities caught in a lethally addictive vicious cycle of their own making. A nurse dealing up close with either crisis might justifiably be moved to shout “Why? Why won’t you just stop already?”
This is why it’s important to continue saying loudly and clearly that the vaccine hesitancy blame game fails on all levels of analysis. It’s one thing to voice a personally pro-vaxx position while recognizing that reasonable people may have concerns and disagree. It’s another thing to lay moral blame on anyone who wonders whether a vaccine that was rushed to market might have skipped some important steps along the way.
Still, there’s value in pointing out hypocrisy. There’s value in reminding people, like Greene did in his Twitter thread, that even the most pathetic hospital-bed-occupier deserves full equality under the Hippocratic oath. (And when it comes to considerations of triage, as Dr. Matthew Loftus points out in this interview with The Week, doctors must constantly make such calculations in or out of a pandemic, so the fact that it’s only being talked about in this context reveals cultural bias.) There’s value in speaking up when the line between frustration and outright hostility becomes so blurred that it’s invisible.
How many doctors who would pride themselves on not being bigots, who would solemnly condemn the crude slurs of an earlier time, secretly get a thrill today when they hear Howard Stern call the unvaccinated “imbeciles”? How many of them laugh to themselves when they watch Jimmy Kimmel openly fantasize about neglecting the unvaccinated as they die: “Vaccinated person having a heart attack? Yes, come right in, we’ll take care of you. Unvaccinated guy who gobbled horse goo? Rest in peace, wheezy.’”
Rest in peace, wheezy. Rest in peace, faggot. You made your own bed, now lie in it.
Like the lawyer testing Jesus, our chattering classes ask, “Who is my neighbor?” They have their answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan—the ideal eternally fixed, eternally judging. Decades ago, it judged the nurses repeatedly drawing straws to decide who would have to enter the room of a dying, frightened boy with his door marked “BIOHAZARD.” Today, it judges the talk-show host turning his disgust for wheezy “horse-goo-gobblers” into prime-time content. Cultures shift, ascendant social classes replace themselves, yet the ugly impulses of human nature are not bound by time.
But, likewise, neither is the example of Christ.
Thanks be to God.