When I look at the low covid vaccination rates, I’m reminded that most of this area doesn’t feel like I do. I was so relieved to get those two shots in the arm and to see my family members who are eligible get the shots, too.
But I’m in the minority. Most people locally haven’t gotten the shots. And I don’t think an opinion column of mine is going to lead anyone to change their mind. I don’t hold any such power.
So maybe I’ll just talk about psychological differences that I perceive, and I don’t mean it judgmentally or as a political statement. What I mean is the vaccine rates show a clear division in perceptions. And our divisions, as much as they cause societal angst, resentment, and a myriad of troubles, also fascinate me.
Of course, life is many things, but it’s also a continuous process of threat assessment. And covid entered a volatile political climate as this truly oddball new risk. Covid can personally feel like a whole lot of nothing or a true hell depending on proximity. It’s deadly enough to take hundreds of thousands of lives in this country in a year, but also not horrifying to most people due to its low-percentage mortality rate compared to ebola or some other pandemic killer.
Basically, it is just deadly enough to create true societal problems and heartbreak for millions, but not deadly enough to create any uniformity of action. Consider that if we had something like airborne rabies and no shots, those who defied public safety mandates wouldn’t be around for long, and we would all be more likely to treat the threat the same.
Because of this threat-assessment ambiguity, we’ve gone our different ways, with many continuing life as usual and others drastically altering their routines. We’ve either been annoyed by people who we feel are overreacting to the virus or horrified by those we don’t feel are recognizing a pandemic for what it is — a pandemic.
Essentially, we’ve each had to make a weighty choice. Do I treat this seriously or not? And either way, we’ve each looked for justifications on our decision — both rationally and irrationally. In this way, the differences in our threat perceptions related to the virus have traveled with all other societal storm water runoff into that familiar national ditch, partisanship. We have been conflicted between keeping life going and protecting life. Both are essential. Masks are not just virus barriers. No, they are either a symbol of overblown fear or a symbol of duty and sacrifice. The symbolism depends on who you ask.
For nearly a year, a vaccine was the Hail Mary toss that hung up in the air forever as many of us waited to catch either a touchdown or a shove in the back from the virus.
I felt like I caught a final-minute touchdown pass when the Walgreens pharmacy staff member put that second needle in my arm. I felt like the world was opening up to me a little more again, like I could visit more with family and friends, like I could be so much closer to normal, like the world would be, too.
And things do feel much better. The sun has been shining. The graduation ceremony I covered Saturday felt really nice, such a different feeling than last year when covid snatched the end of the school year from graduates.
As I write this, Madison County’s vaccination numbers are low, with just 27 percent of citizens fully vaccinated. That’s in line with other counties in northeast Georgia and a little below the state rate of 30 percent. Nationwide, vaccination rates are better, but still, only 40 percent of the U.S. is fully vaccinated.
If you’re like me and you have gotten the vaccine, you might be disappointed that many others don’t share in your touchdown joy. There are surely many reasons for this. And if you are reading this and you haven’t gotten vaccinated, I don’t presume to know your reason. Of course, I’ve been expressing how the vaccine made me feel freed from something. But that emotion isn’t going to be the same for those who never felt confined by the virus, who made a choice not to treat the threat in the same way. I think so much comes down to feeling in control. I think that’s true with covid, and with most everything.
So I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to imagine the emotions of other people and what helps them feel in control. We generally make our decisions emotionally, no matter how much we claim to be rational. Even the rational decisions are tied to a deeper emotional anchor if you peel it back.
The atom bomb of covid fell on us last March and destroyed our control, our normalcy. And we had to quickly figure out what we were going to be in relation to it.
So the downplay of the threat in the early going was a way to quickly re-establish control over fear. Masks become symbols of fear to be tossed aside. In that light, vaccines are just an extension of the fear to be cast aside, too. Why give up the feeling of control that was established early in the pandemic? Why be told what to do by someone else? Why accept something that was so rushed? All of this can also be a surrender to faith in God. The flip side of that statement is that the vaccine can also be viewed as a God-given answer to an unfolding human tragedy. It depends on your version of faith.
I understand people taking different routes to control than me. I may not agree with them, but I can understand it psychologically. As I said, I feel more control in getting the shots, but not everyone is wired like me.
That said, I feel like people who are spouting conspiracy theories aren’t being brave, but giving in to fear instead, or simply enjoying some cheap entertainment. For instance, if you think there’s some kind of tracking chip in the vaccines, and you are still carrying a smart phone, then you are not actually very concerned about tracking, since you are willingly carrying a sophisticated tracking and listening device. You are just enjoying a fear-driven conspiracy.
When it comes to disease, vaccines have a proven track record. And oddly, we are actually witnessing a consequence of their success in our anti-vax movement, which isn’t just about covid. If smallpox was claiming as many children as it once did, if polio was crippling our kids, and if the graveyards were as full of toddlers as they once were, then we wouldn’t have the luxury of forgetfulness. We, as a medically advanced society, have forgotten that awful aspect of earlier human existence, how so many parents lost so many children to now-preventable diseases. What a wonderful gift vaccines are! But they’re taken for granted more and more.
The covid vaccines have proven effective against the virus, which is also a monumental gift to mankind. That could change as more variants spread. And the vaccine resistance by much of the public could bring a vaccine-resistant strain of the virus to us. Rough thought.
But I won’t dwell on that right now. No, I’m going to be grateful for what I have received — the shots, some sunny days, and the good feelings both have brought.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.