Friday, April 16, 2021

Vaccine Holdouts

Society is rapidly cleaving into two groups: the vaccinated, who are largely safe from Covid infection and almost completely safe from dangerous Covid symptoms (i.e. they can still, rarely, catch it, but symptoms resemble any very minor respiratory infection), and the unvaccinated, who remain in danger.

My first impulse re: vaccine refusers is to wearily shrug. Like with seatbelts, I do the smarter thing, so I get to enjoy the safety. They could easily be safe, too, so this just represents Darwin at work, expunging the demented and the obtuse from the gene pool.

But there's a different way to frame it. If someone in my life joined a cult and was convinced to move to Guyana and drink poisoned lemonade to die en masse with the Dear Leader, I wouldn't be thinking about Darwin and gene pools. I'd be thinking "tragedy". Brain washing really happens. And ignorance. And stupid obstinacy. Actions have consequences, just as we teach our kids, but the penalty ought not be death. This isn't a cartoon. The 500 ton weight falling on the foolish coyote shouldn't be a real world "LOL".

The big problem with Covid (which nobody mentions because it's inconvenient) is also Covid's great blessing: it's not Smallpox. It infects only a few percent, and kills only a few percent of them. So the people who've been socializing in maskless crowds and refusing vaccine very likely won't die, making the feedback mechanism loose and floppy, and organisms don't learn efficiently from loose, floppy feedback. French kissing strangers probably won't kill you, and such spotty feedback spurs only spotty learning at best. Covid perches diabolically on the razor's edge: too tame to easily compel full compliance, yet too perilous to ignore. That's the big problem with Covid.

Of course, it's horrendously poor risk-assessment to tempt fate even within this grey area. But we don't need to winnow poor risk assessors from the gene pool. Even if they tend to wear red hats, holler dumb political slogans, and support deranged con men.

Here's the best pitch I've managed to brew up for folks on the fence re: vaccines (nothing works with staunch anti-vax loudmouths):
"Look, I'm not going to flood you with facts and information, and I won't call you names or try to make you feel dumb, but I'd really hate to lose you, and Covid's bad, and the vaccines work great. I got the shot, and it was a beautiful experience and now I feel safe. I'd be much happier if you were safe, too. We need good people here. We can't afford people like you dying needlessly. Please reconsider."
That works - a little - if someone's on the fence. Treat them not like skeptics, who just need to hear some sense, but like potential suicides. Treat them like people standing on a skyscraper window ledge. This approach - this framing - resonates.

I'm safe either way. I don't need herd immunity, I've got personal immunity. And I've arranged vaccination appointments for a number of local immigrants with lousy English skills. And I've used my well-polished line of persuasion on all the holdouts I know. But I refuse to shrug and invoke Darwin.

From my long-awaited safe harbor of personal safety, here's how I frame it: ignorance, brain washing, and obstinacy can, alas, be fatal, and these are essentially cult victims. So I, myself, am reminded to be less rigid, less proud of my contrarian tendencies, and more wary of my own poor judgement.

Most of all, like an acrophobic near a cliff, I detect and fear my propensity to fall. I recognize that a person can immerse so deeply into a story he tells himself that he misses the reality right before his eyes. Even as a reframing specialist, I don't always immediately shake off every story that's outlived reality.

Just as a lagniappe, I believe a lot of the vaccine holdouts are extra scared. Scared just in general, and particularly frightened of Covid. That may seem senseless, but have you ever hit the accelerator when you were lost (if you even remember "getting lost", before the age of GPS)? It's the same impulse. The assertion of control - any control, including counterproductive - feels, for many people, like their only backstop from the yawing abyss. This is why very old, very sick, very confused people often argue tenaciously with their doctors. They are proving to themselves that they retain autonomy. It feels like a higher priority than not dying.

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