The Tyranny of the Anti-Vaxxers

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at a June 16 Covid-19 briefing. (Youtube screenshot.)

On Sept. 15, just days after the nation wept through the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, this was the headline: “1 in every 500 U.S. residents have died of COVID-19.”

It was difficult not to compare all the things the U.S. government did in the name of protecting the country in response to the 9/11 attacks that killed just under 3,000 people to how little has been done to protect the country from the virus that has taken the lives of nearly 680,000 Americans. 

Back in February and March of 2020, then-President Trump, in a series of interviews with award-winning journalist Bob Woodward, said that he was deliberately downplaying the severity and scope of the pandemic. In April, Trump said in a press briefing that Americans could counter the virus by ingesting or injecting disinfectants like bleach. 

Despite constant insistence from the CDC and NIH, as well as from the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, that wearing masks, socially distancing and isolating were the only ways to combat the virus effectively pre-vaccine, Trump kept insisting that the virus would just naturally go away with warm weather (ignoring the fact that some states have warm weather year-round).  

Under Trump there was never a mask mandate. But there were a half million deaths, the majority of which, experts said, could have been avoided had there been a nationwide mask mandate.

And now we are at that shocking number: 1 in 500 dead. That totality of 680,000 is more than the individual populations of Vermont, Wyoming and Washington D.C.  Imagine D.C. wiped out. Or Vermont. Or Wyoming. That is what that number approximates. Like one of those sci-fi films where all the people have been decimated, everyone gone.

It didn’t have to be this way. 

As of Sept. 12, 2021, the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide had reached over 225.5 million, with the number of deaths from COVID-19 at 4.65 million. The U.S. has a disproportionate number of both cases and deaths. Although the U.S. is only the third most populous nation, it ranks first in the number of cases and deaths.

As of Sept. 12, 2021, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had reached over 40.87 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — one in eight Americans has had the virus. As of Sept. 13, the number of deaths is 677,988. 

On the same day as the 1 in 500 headline, there were others: 

From the Washington Post: “DeSantis says cities, counties could face millions in fines over vaccine mandates for employees.” From Rolling Stone: “Anti-Vaxxers Are Now Gargling Iodine to Prevent Covid-19.” From NBC news :“Nicki Minaj said Covid vaccine could make you impotent. Fauci shut her down.” From CNN: “COVID surge pushes much of Idaho toward medical rationing.”

There were many other stories of deaths, of surges, of school shutdowns mere days or weeks after the new semester, of anti-vaxxer protests and mask burnings, of refusals to get vaccinated even in the face of an ongoing pandemic. 

Local Covid headlines spoke to the tyranny of the unvaccinated. 

“Unvaccinated Make Up Nearly 100% of Philly COVID Deaths in 2021,” wrote NBC Philly. “Nearly all COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths in Philly were unvaccinated people, city says; three city schools forced to close,” wrote The Inquirer.

On Sept. 13, the Denver Post reported that Bob Enyart, conservative radio talk show host of the show “Real Science” and an evangelical Denver pastor since 2000, had died of COVID after refusing to take the vaccine. He was one of several prominent conservatives to have died, unvaccinated, in recent weeks.

Enyart’s death was commented upon widely on social media. Infamous for his homophobia,  Enyart “would gleefully read obituaries of AIDS sufferers while cranking ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen,” on his show during the 90s, the Denver Post reported. “Karma,” said many on Twitter.

The headlines, when strung together throughout the country, tell a story of the politicizing of a virus and its remedies. Fauci said repeatedly in 2020 that if everyone wore masks, the virus would have fewer avenues for spreading. Since the first vaccines rolled out in January, Fauci has said that getting everyone vaccinated is paramount to controlling the pandemic. 

Yet even as every infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist calls for vaccine mandates and venues like the recent Made in America festival or the Kimmel Center or Broadway all demand proof of vaccination, Republican politicians everywhere continue to refute the science and denounce mask and vaccine mandates.

President Biden’s frustration was clear last week as he issued a vaccine mandate for all businesses with over 100 employees. He had offered the carrot months earlier; now came the stick. 

The GOP doesn’t care. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a presidential contender for 2024, is fighting mask and vaccine mandates even as his state has alarming levels of new COVID cases. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, despite having had COVID himself, banned both mask and vaccine mandates in an executive order last month as cases rise in that state.

Popular wisdom on Twitter says let Darwin rule and natural selection cull the anti-vaxxers. But like drunk drivers barreling down the highway, anti-vaxxers don’t just kill themselves. They are killing children too young to be vaccinated, putting immuno-compromised people at risk, taking up all the ICU beds in hospitals, and causing deaths among patients with other life-threatening illnesses. 

And the unvaccinated are perpetuating the pandemic by spreading the virus everywhere. In July there was an outbreak of 900 cases of breakthrough COVID among vaccinated people in the queer mecca of Provincetown when hundreds of unvaccinated people from other states visited for the July 4 holiday. 

How do we end the tyranny of the unmasked and unvaccinated? How do we stop the misinformation and disinformation from celebrities like Nicki Minaj, Joe Rogan and others? How do we finally get back to some semblance of normality where the pandemic is actually receding? 

There are no simple answers. We’ve coddled the anti-science right far too long. They just spent $276 million of taxpayer money on the California recall in a fit of pique over Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID restrictions, only to be soundly defeated by a population that wants to survive the pandemic. 

Vaccines are free and available everywhere. Side-effects are minimal and self-limiting, whereas COVID can cause long-term side-effects and lasting damage to major organs, as well as the mysterious “long COVID” syndrome.

We have to fight back with science, as happened in the California recall. With fear, as the stories of the unvaccinated dying and dead tell an increasingly unnecessary series of tragic tales. With support for vaccine mandates at schools and businesses. With vaccine passports everywhere. 

Despite the GOP claims, vaccine mandates are uniquely American. They are how we eradicated smallpox, polio, diphtheria and other killer diseases in the U.S. George Washington even ordered 40,000 Continental army troops to get the smallpox vaccine.

Save your life. Get vaccinated, and take your friends with you.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.