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Self-Preservation

Drive-through polio vaccination clinic in the early 1960s

My parents all but deified Drs. Salk and Sabin because their polio vaccines were the one-two punch that finally knocked out polio, the crippling, killing terror virus whose victims were mostly kids.

Were they alive, I have no doubt that Sue and Berry Craig Jr. would be venerating scientists who developed the vaccine against COVID-19, the uber-contagious virus that has triggered the deadliest pandemic in a century. I'm sure they'd have gotten the shots, too.

Self-preservation is supposed to be the first law of nature. So I don't understand folks who won't get vaccinated and refuse to wear face masks to protect themselves and others against a malady whose death toll far exceeds the number of Americans who perished in World War II.

“It’s complicated,” said Dr. Greg Leichty, a recently retired University of Louisville communications professor. “But stubborn resistance to persuasion can be driven by fear of change. There’s also fear of a loss of freedom.”

"Freedom" has become the rallying cry of a growing anti-vaccination movement that's turning violent around the edges. "...In state after state, vaccine opponents have gradually leveraged their state and local Republican parties to their ends, riding the 'freedom' wave that has become so central to messaging," Tara Haelle wrote in The New York Times. "Hence the seamless marriage between anti-vaccine activists and groups protesting mask mandates and lockdowns."

Well, “Your freedom ends at my nose” is my paraphrase of an old saying in law. It seems particularly apt for COVID-19, an airborne virus that has, so far, claimed the lives of nearly 650,000 of our fellow Americans, including more than 7,900 of our fellow Kentuckians.

Back when I got my Salk polio shot and ate a sugar cube laced with the Sabin serum, I was learning in Presbyterian Sunday school that Jesus wanted us to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us”and to “love thy neighbor as thyself." 

Some of the most militant anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are conservative, white evangelical Protestants. I hear that some preachers are sermonizing against getting vaccinated and wearing masks.

Evangelicals probably make up a majority of regular churchgoers in my neck of the deep western Kentucky woods. They profess to take the Bible literally as the “inerrant” word of God. 

So what about “Doing unto others?” and “Love thy neighbor?” Too, I guess the preachers forgot that Jesus also warned His followers to beware of "false prophets." 

Many evangelicals see opposition to vaccinations and mask mandates as “a political statement—a way to defend their group against the ‘other’ side,” meaning liberalism, secular and sectarian.

"Evangelicals have a persecution complex, but it’s intensified over the last 50 or so years," Leichty said. "It’s a culture of paranoia about a way of life they see as passing. They feel like they have taken loss after loss."

Thus, he added, many evangelicals see opposition to vaccinations and mask mandates as “a political statement—a way to defend their group against the ‘other’ side,” meaning liberalism, secular and sectarian.

Anyway, I’m fully vaccinated and will take my booster shot when the CDC says it's appropriate. I'm still masking to protect myself and others. (It’s possible, however remotely, that I could still give COVID to somebody who’s not vaccinated, so I strap on a KN95 when I go into public buildings.) 

Writing about anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers in the TimesPaul Krugman put a secular spin on the issue by summoning famous words from the Declaration of Independence: "When you reject your shots or refuse to mask up, you’re increasing my risk of catching a potentially deadly or disabling disease, and also helping to perpetuate the social and economic costs of the pandemic. In a very real sense, the irresponsible minority is depriving the rest of us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Not coincidentally, white evangelicals make up a big chunk of the Trump base. While Trump caught COVID and got vaccinated, he’s not pressing the faithful to vax up and mask up. The other day, he collected a smattering of boos at an Alabama rally when he urged the crowd, almost entirely maskless, to get vaccinated like he did. Trump immediately backpedaled: "No, that's OK. That's all right. You got your freedoms." 

A ton of Trumpians—many of whom think COVID is a hoax—evidently equate spurning shots and masks as signs of fealty to the former president. Even so, other factors motivate COVID contrarians, according to Leichty. “One of the things that consistently happens with people in denial is the belief that it will happen to somebody else. COVID doesn’t apply to me; I’m healthy.”

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I'm retired after spending more than a dozen years as a daily newspaper reporter and two dozen more years teaching history at a community college. So I subscribe to the notion that increasing your knowledge about a topic is a good way to clear up disagreements based on misunderstandings of whatever's at issue. 

Veteran journalist Ezra Klein argued the opposite in a 2014 Voxarticle with a grabber headline: "How politics makes us stupid." 

"Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become," he wrote. 

Klein added that Yale law professor Dan Kahan, who headed the research team, tried out the premise on climate change doubters: "He tested people’s scientific literacy alongside their ideology and then asked about the risks posed by climate change. If the problem was truly that people needed to know more about science to fully appreciate the dangers of a warming climate, then their concern should’ve risen alongside their knowledge. But here, too, the opposite was true: among people who were already skeptical of climate change, scientific literacy made them more skeptical of climate change."

I'd bet the farm that Kahan would get the same results with COVID disbelievers. In another column, Krugman compared them to climate change skeptics: "Before the right embraced Covid denial, there was climate denial. Many of the attitudes that have characterized the right-wing response to the coronavirus pandemic — refusal to acknowledge facts, accusations that scientists are part of a vast liberal conspiracy, refusal to address the crisis — were foreshadowed in the climate debate."

Anyway, in my youth, nearly everybody jumped at the chance to get vaccinated against polio. They heeded President Eisenhower who said everybody should get a shot—as he did. 

"But there was a lot more public trust in science and government back then,” Leichty explained. There was indeed.

NPR's Susan Brink quoted David M. Oshinsky, a New York University medical historian and the author of Polio: An American Story: "If you had to pick a moment as the high point of respect for scientific discovery, it would have been then. After World War II, you had antibiotics rolling off the production line for the first time. People believed infectious disease was [being] conquered. And then this amazing vaccine is announced. People couldn't get it fast enough."

Today, self-serving, truth-torturing right-wing politicians and pundits are exploiting public mistrust of science and government to the hilt. "The Covid vaccine hesitancy running through the Republican Party threatens to do more than prolong this pandemic," Haelle wrote. "It also threatens America’s ability to fight other diseases, of the past and the future."

(As with polio, the more people who get vaccinated, the quicker the COVID-19 pandemic will ebb. The polio virus is still out there, but the disease is rare because so many people are vaccinated against it.)

Haelle quotedDr. Peter Hotez, who co-directs the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development: “The most dangerous thing that could happen is the Republican Party adopts anti-vaccine anti-science to the major platform. This is the nightmare situation I’d hoped to avoid.”

Republicans like Rand Paul, Kentucky's junior senator, routinely lie about COVID, earning themselves the "Covidiot" nickname. Some internet websites define a Covidiot as "a person who acts like an irresponsible idiot during the COVID-19 pandemic, ignoring common sense, decency, science, and professional advice leading to the further spread of the virus and needless deaths of thousands."

In Frankfort, Republican lawmakers who rule the roost in the legislature never miss a chance to demonize Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for encouraging us to trust science and get vaccinated and for enacting emergency COVID regulations, such as mandating masks in schools. 

Simply put, the governor's goal is to keep us out of the hospital and the cemetery. In my book, that makes him one of the good guys like Dr. Anthony Fauci, a frequent target of GOP demagogues like Paul.

We'll see if Hotez's nightmare comes true in Kentucky in a special session of the legislature dealing with Covid that Beshear is expected to call soon. The Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate have already passed laws limiting the governor's ability to issue emergency decrees. Who knows what else they might do to tie his hands to please their anti-vax and anti-mask base. 

Dare I suggest that they are a minority, if a noisy one, and there's a "silent majority" of us who support the governor's emergency measures? Not all Republicans are singing on the same page in the anti-vax and anti-mask hymnbook. Former GOP House Speaker Jeff Hoover tweeted: "Personal observation. If you claim to be pro-life and show up at the State Fair to get your campaign ready photo taken at the pro-life booth, but you encourage people to not get vaccinated or wear masks, you are NOT pro-life, despite what your campaign ad says." (Hoover didn't name the politician. But the object of his disaffection is apparently GOP Secretary of State Michael Adams.) 

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Argued Krugman in the other column: "...From the response to Covid-19 among Republican officials — especially the opposition to lifesaving vaccines — it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the paranoid, anti-rational streak in American politics isn’t as bad as we thought; it’s much, much worse."

Berry Craig