Column: The Antidote to the Pandemic is… Grief

Mother Nature apparently does not realize that the 2019 pandemic is over. She insisted on infecting our athletes, coaches and staff at the Tokyo Olympics even after we postponed the event a full year. It appears that the pandemic is ramping up again, just as the flu epidemic of 1918 came back with tragic effects in 1919 and 1920. The reaction to the rise in Covid-19 cases across all 50 states is disturbingly familiar: many believe the new numbers are not worth their concern, and they are willing to bet their lives on it.

Mother Nature is targeting Americans who were confident that Covid-19 would inconvenience them less than the vaccines that their government insisted were safe and effective. If those vaccines are so safe and effective, they ask, why are there so many legislators nationally and locally insisting that they are unnecessary? Surely we can get back to ‘normal’ and discard all those smelly masks we have been wearing. Can’t we stop airing all those public service announcements telling us to get vaccinated and to keep our children away from unvaccinated people? Can’t we go about our business and do business as usual?

If you change the channel to escape the mind-numbingly redundant messages about getting vaccinated, you just end up hearing from Fox ‘News’ and their imitators that the government is not answering your questions and that you need to wonder why. I am not sure what those unanswered questions are since the “mainstream media” seems to have described pretty much everything you might want to know about these vaccines except the names and home phone numbers of the people shipping the drugs.

We have a dilemma. To provide real protection against this virus that has killed more than 600,000 of our friends and neighbors and sickened millions more over the past 16 months, we need at least 70 % (or more realistically at least 80 %) of the adult population to have suffered and survived the virus or received a Covid-19 vaccination. We are still millions of souls short of that objective, and there is no reason to believe we shall ever get there, at least by way of vaccinations. With failure comes the death of fifty or one hundred thousand more Americans and the crippling of a million more.

Our fellow Americans are not simply refusing to get vaccinated; they are reacting to the advice that they get vaccinated as an assault on their God-given freedom of choice. That the government has resorted to having vaccine advocates go door-to-door to urge people to get vaccinated is being depicted as more proof that our ‘leaders’ are evil. Following this logic takes us to strange conclusions, such as eliminating the U.S. postal service. It was bad enough when government employees insisted on leaving bills and other documents in those roadside boxes displaying our house numbers. Why did the government agree to be a lackey for big business? If the electric company wants to bill us, shouldn’t they drop off those bills themselves, rather than relying on those uniformed government agents that show up every day except Sunday, even when there is rain, sleet or snow?

I understand from Fox ‘News’ that the government is dispatching an army of zealots to tell anyone who apparently does not have a television, radio, newspaper, or internet access that Covid-19 is bad and vaccination is good. I even heard from one frantic commentator that they may be demanding “our guns and Bibles.” As a physician listening to these pronouncements, I am concerned, not because I have a gun or a Bible, but because I wonder if the virus is causing widespread dementia.The historical record does not indicate that vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), and polio faced this much resistance or elicited this much hysteria. To those who ask, “What else should we do to get people vaccinated against Covid-19?” I say, “Relax and regroup.”

We have tried begging, bemoaning, and bribing with little success. A few people have rolled up their sleeves after being offered cash, scholarships, basketball tickets and other such valued inducements, but most have remained committed to vaccine rejection. To get herd immunity, we must face the reality that reason will not work. The unvaccinated are not moved by compelling arguments, but they may rethink their positions when they are in pain. It is only through the pain of loss that most individuals will break with herd conformity.

We are social animals. Consequently, the rejection of vaccination is typically not an act of individual defiance or paranoia. It is a group phenomenon, like watching sporting events or singing in a choir. We enjoy doing stuff with other people, especially with like-minded people. Sometimes that is not good, as was the case with the followers of Jim Jones who poisoned or were forced to poison themselves and their children. If you think that refusing vaccinations and discussing mass suicide/murders together is inappropriate, step back and look at the death and damage Covid-19 has caused over the past year and a half. Tell me how those preaching to their minions that risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones is wise and moral are different from Jim Jones and his message of ‘revolutionary suicide.’

Rejecting vaccination has become an article of faith for a large segment of America. Conversation and confrontation do not work against dogma, especially when so many highly visible people are preaching that dogma. It is time to dispatch our most potent weapon against dogma: grief. Every time Covid-19 claims another victim, there are usually several shattered individuals left grieving. Grief undermines faith and makes those left behind more open-minded. Instead of going door-to-door, we need to go bedside-to-bedside. Most of those being sickened by Covid-19 now have been unvaccinated, and the friends and relatives of those suffering from the virus are likely to be unvaccinated. Put those friends and relatives in protective gear and let them watch their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters struggle to breathe and ask the obvious question, “Do you want this for yourself or those you care about?” If the answer is, “No,” give them a vaccination then and there.  If the answer is, “Yes,” refer them to a psychiatrist.

We have the tools to end this pandemic now, but the resistance to using those tools is getting stronger every day.  Americans are increasingly viewing their obstinance as heroic.  Mother Nature has made it clear that plentiful and powerful is no protection against extinction.  She snuffed out the dinosaurs because they could not adapt to changing conditions on the planet, and she will treat us with equal indifference if we do not get smart. It will be déjà vu all over again.  

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.   

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