Pandemic Between Our Ears
For The Fabulous Wife and me the COVID-19 pandemic is over, at least until a variant can pierce our vaccine shield. What a joy! We’ve been hanging out with friends at every opportunity. Invariably an early topic of our conversations is the unvaccinated. A month or two ago we’d express bewilderment at them. Now I’m starting to hear less charitable sentiments, along the lines of “they’ve been given every chance to get the vaccine, so if they get sick and die, screw ‘em.”
I don’t condone — but do understand — the anger. The unvaccinated not only endanger themselves, they give the coronavirus time and opportunity to evolve strains that endanger the rest of us.
And that quiet seething isn’t confined to laypeople like our friends. Ed Yong, the Atlantic’s Pulitzer Prize-winning pandemic reporter, recently published a story about the surge of coronavirus cases in under-vaccinated southwest Missouri, where the health care system is close to breaking. He quotes a local medical director frustrated by the needless suffering and death and the relentless pressure on his staff: “You’re just angry, and you feel guilty for getting angry, because they’re sick and dying.”
My friends keep wondering why the unvaccinated won’t just get the shot. With concise logic they refute every argument for not getting jabbed. But then someone (often me) interjects that this isn’t about logic, and the group agrees that no, it isn’t. We’re willing to believe it’s foolish, and we’re willing to believe it’s political, with extremists on the left convinced the vaccine is another bad-faith medical experiment like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and extremists on the right convinced their freedom to raise a middle finger to the rest of society is more important than their health (or life) and that they’re comparable to Holocaust victims.
What none of us have suggested, but what I’m slowly starting to believe, is that it’s psychotic.
There’s a reason I call this blog Element of Uncertainty: I’m not always convinced of my own arguments. That’s the case here, in part because it feels too strongly put, in part because I don’t feel I’ve completely thought it through, and in part because I don’t want to face it. I’m putting it out there because it’s become impossible to ignore that significant minorities on both sides of the political divide (although the one on the right is far larger and more indulged by its leaders) have grown so unable to deal with empirical reality that they’ve created an alternate reality they now seem to fully inhabit, and that’s the very definition of psychosis: a mental state marked by loss of contact with reality. It would be one thing if their inability to handle the truth affected only themselves, but, as with vaccine resistance, it imperils us all.
The notion has its roots in my years as risk manager at UC Berkeley, where I saw so much psychosis I began to suspect Carlo Cipolla’s Five Basic Laws of Human Stupidity hold true for it as well, especially the first basic law: “Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.” Do we underestimate the number of psychotic individuals in circulation? I’m guessing yes, if only because so many of us equate sane with normal. A lot of what’s considered normal in some circles, for example racism, isn’t sane at all. But what else are we to call people who insist you can judge human beings by their skin color? Or that climate change and Biden’s victory aren’t real but QAnon is? Is a sickness less of a sickness because so many people have it? We don’t feel that way about physical illnesses like the flu or COVID-19. I don’t know why we’d feel differently about psychosis.
Since I’m already out on a limb, in my next post I’ll share a theory about why so many more Americans than in the past are exhibiting psychotic symptoms.