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How Bad Should We Feel When the Willfully Unvaccinated Die?

John Scalzi

This comes up because over the last few weeks there’s been an uptick in news stories about people who chose not to be vaccinated dying of COIVD, and on their deathbeds — or alternately, just before an intubation robbed them of the ability to meaningfully communicate with others — they expressed regret for not having got a vaccination earlier, which statistically speaking would have very likely kept them from dying. The story noted above is representative: Right-wing media personality Dick Farrel, who spent time on his radio show railing against the COVID vaccine for all the usual right-wing reasons, died of the virus and apparently told a friend before his demise that he wished he had gotten the vaccine. By then, of course, it was too late.

Dick Farrel didn’t have to die. He knew a vaccine existed, he presumably had access to the data that showed its efficacy in preventing the disease taking hold in the large majority of people, and minimizing the damage it does in the minority who still contracted the virus despite vaccination. Yet he affirmatively chose not to get the vaccine, and he went out of his way to convince others not to get the vaccine as well. He’s dead now, felled by a virus whose worst damage he could have easily avoided. How bad should we feel about his death?

Indeed, here in the second half of 2021, how bad should we feel about the COVID-related death of anyone who still chooses not to get vaccinated — with the full knowledge of the consequences of contracting COVID, and the spread of the rather-more-infectious Delta variant of the disease, and the ease of acquiring a shot (which here in the US is free to get, incidentally)? Is there a certain point where one throws up one’s hands, says, “well, you knew better, didn’t you?” and washes one’s hands of them?

As with so many things in this world, I think it depends.

Let’s begin by acknowledging a moral hazard inherent here. Mainly: there’s a difference between wondering how badly one should feel about the willfully unvaccinated dying of COVID, and hoping that they do. If you are in the latter camp, remember that wishing death on people almost always makes you the asshole in the scenario. I personally make an effort not to wish people dead, even as I acknowledge I have a list of people I think the planet would be better off without. I won’t mourn their sorry asses when they’re gone. I’m not going to hope they get pushed in front of a bus, however. And I’m not going to do any of that pushing myself.

With that acknowledged, I think we can separate the currently unvaccinated into three major categories:

1. Those who legitimately cannot be vaccinated: Children under the age of 12, and those over that age who have medical reasons that keep them from being vaccinated are generally blameless if they catch the virus. You should feel bad for them if they die, and if you additionally feel a bit pissed off that the willfully unvaccinated made their lives harder by not being vaccinated when they easily could be, then that’s perfectly all right. Because they did! And that’s an asshole thing to do.

2. Those who could be vaccinated but aren’t because they’re ignorant and/or have a head full of bullshit: This is the largest group, and personally I have some sympathy for them. Look, it’s hard to remember this sometimes, but lots of people don’t feel obliged to follow the news of the day with any assiduousness. When they do, they often get it from sources that a) have trained them over years to mistrust information that does not come from them, b) are lying to them because they have a financial motive for doing so. This informational ecosystem of bullshit has gone out of its way to frame a viral pandemic as just another political issue, which it’s fundamentally not. A virus doesn’t give a shit about your politics, only whether it can gain a foothold in your body.

But for millions of people, that framing has taken hold and at this point it’s impossible to shake. Your cousin/high school friend/neighbor railing about masks and “vaccination passports” on Facebook has been fed bullshit and accepts the idea that only the people feeding them bullshit are truly “objective” and trustworthy. We can go on and on about how that happened and the ultimate culpability of your cousin/high school friend/neighbor in their own ignorance and pleasure in pouring bullshit into their own head. But, for the moment, accept that they have been lied to, and are unfortunately not particularly well-equipped to break out of the framing that’s been reinforced to them, over and over, by the media figures and politicians they trusted (mind you, they will likely be furious if you point out the latter bit to them; they’re the free-thinkers, you see).

So when your cousin/high school friend/neighbor and people like them who choose not to get vaccinated contract COVID and die, while the temptation is to be all, welp, what did you expect, you fucked around and found out, entertain the notion that, alongside anything else about the situation, they have been victimized by people who largely knew better. There are people who know that a virus doesn’t care about politics, but decided to frame it as a political issue because doing so ultimately allows them to sell pillows and nutritional powders and reverse mortgages and gold coins and whatnot to the people they terrified and made angry and ignorant, and because they think that in the authoritarian future they are working so hard to bring about, somehow they will be the ones wearing the boots instead of being crushed under a heel like everyone else.

You can be sorry that because a vast right-wing propaganda machine thought it was more important to grasp toward power than to value human life, your cousin/high school friend/neighbor/whomever is now dead. Hopefully you will be motivated to avenge their death.

(There are people out there in the US not attached to the right wing who are also steering people away from vaccines, which I am noting here simply so people don’t bring up the point in the comments. Sure, they exist. With that said, let’s not pretend that the high correlation between the parts of the US that are deemed “vaccine hesitant,” and which parts of the US that voted for Trump in 2020, is some sort of wild coincidence).

3. Those who could have been vaccinated but weren’t because they were busy selling the lie: Dick Farrel, by all appearances, falls into that category. Not only did he apparently dine on the bullshit, he was also serving it up on his radio show and on (ugh) Newsmax. He was actively demonizing health experts and encouraging people not to get vaccinated. Who knows how many people found themselves infected, hospitalized, and dead because of his actions, and the actions of others like him in media and politics reinforcing each others’ bullshit. He went out of his way to peddle a lie and endanger the health of others, because among other things he thought there was some coin in it. I hope he brought a couple of coins for the ferryman when he went. That’s all the benefit he’s going to get out of them at this point.

My reaction to the Dick Farrels of the world is: I’m sorry their friends lost a friend, and I’m sorry for all the people they fed bullshit to who are currently in danger of contracting a dangerous but easily preventable virus because he encouraged them not to protect themselves with a simple, safe and efficient vaccine. If his death and deathbed conversion to the efficacy of vaccines serves as a useful rebuttal to all his previous bullshit on the subject, so much the better. Beyond that, I wouldn’t have wished him dead, and I’m glad he’s no longer able to tell other people not to get vaccinated. It’s too bad the former was required for the latter, but, well. Here we are. If it takes more deaths like his for it to sink in, at least they will not be entirely useless deaths. This is about as kindly as I can put that.

In any event: If you haven’t been vaccinated yet and can get vaccinated, please go do it. Now is a good time. A fair number of unvaccinated people are spending their last moments wishing they had gotten vaccinated; nearly all of the vaccinated, on the other hand, are nowhere near their last moments because of COVID. No one’s wondering how to feel about their deaths. Get vaccinated and stick around, and in doing so make life a little less risky for the people who legitimately cannot be vaccinated. It’s, literally, your choice.

— JS

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