Enough of the 'conservative' anti-vaccination stuff, please
Trump’s Booster and the Silence on the Right: A Conservative Case for COVID-19 Vaccination During the Omicron Winter
When President Trump recently made it clear that he believes the COVID vaccines are an amazing medical achievement, it was not the first time he had made that acknowledgment. Mainstream media were nonetheless all over it, sometimes to give the former President due credit, often using it as another opportunity to attack him.
The real reason they were interested in the event, though, was for something else Trump admitted about the vaccines. He said, in conversation with Bill O’Reilly, that he had gotten a COVID booster shot on top of his previous vaccination. He was immediately booed by some in the audience. To his great credit, he shut those jeering down, telling the audience:
“Look, we did something that was historic. We saved tens of millions of lives worldwide. We together, all of us — not me, we — we got a vaccine done, three vaccines done, and tremendous therapeutics. This was going to ravage the country far beyond what it is right now. Take credit for it. Take credit for it…. Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves. You’re playing right into their hands when you sort of like, ‘Oh the vaccine.’ If you don’t want to take it, you shouldn’t be forced to take it. No mandates. But take credit because we saved tens of millions of lives.”
More recently, the former President has criticized other Republican politicians who refuse to reveal their vaccination status to the public for fear they will upset the anti-vaccination component of their supporters.
This opposition to the anti-vaxers by someone they typically adulate is objectively a big deal. But if you Google “Trump booster,” you will make an interesting discovery. There are lots of hits, but almost none from any news sources that are even mildly to the right in editorial lean.
Meanwhile, Candace Owens, on whose podcast Trump repeated the same truths about the vaccines, later claimed that the problem with his utterance of such, to her mind, obvious falsehoods, was Trump’s age. She explained that the former President was, like many older folk, unfamiliar with the existence of the Internet and television and therefore not really capable at “conducting his own independent research,” as she apparently has. She has since clarified that her opposition to COVID vaccination is so strong she would rather die from COVID than get the shot.
What a mess has been made of this topic, on all sides. It is becoming impossible to speak about the topic without being absorbed by the partisan divide that has come to have such gravitational pull in American culture that almost no effort to look honestly at facts and report on them has the slightest chance of escaping its nearly irresistible force.
It is a certainty that the fact that I have little here to say in criticism of woke absurdities about COVID will be taken by some on the right as evidence that I am in league with those they see as their enemies. But if I say nothing about the ubiquitous leftist overreach and political rhetoric masked as “following the science” here, it is because I have written of it elsewhere. I am quite familiar with the overwrought COVID obsessive, who can be seen on the campus where I work every day, driving alone masked, terrified beyond measure of all human interaction, even masked and socially distanced, and despite being fully vaccinated and boostered, and I agree that this is a pitiable figure. The absurd overreach on some campuses is truly astoundingly unrelated to rigorous science. Even at least one left-leaning member of the US Supreme Court has in recent days demonstrated how little she knows about the COVID facts and how eager she is to believe things about its impact that are very far from the truth. There is much more to be said there, and new stupidities appear from these people and institutions all the time, but one can only do one difficult job at a time.
My sole goal here is to try to convince at least some anti-vaccination conservatives why some of the most popular tropes against vaccination on the right are ill-founded, uninformed, and decidedly non-conservative.
The Popular ‘Conservative’ Inaccuracies on COVID
Let’s begin with a few of the common assertions of the anti-vaccine right:
“It’s just like the flu or a cold, and Omicron especially is really mild. Vaccination against it is not necessary.”
This is wishful thinking at best. The numbers simply don’t support this at all. No annual flu in recent memory has been anything approaching this lethal. It’s true that the prognostications of the most extreme doomsayers have not been borne out, and thankfully many millions are not dead in the US. (We certainly have the vaccines to credit for much of that reality). But we are nonetheless near 850,000 in two years, which is magnitudes higher than the worst flu produces. The flu kills some tens of thousands of Americans a year, typically, topping out in heavy years around 40,000. More than 400,000 a year is effectively a 10 fold increase on even the worst flu years in the US, and for two years running. It is deeply off the mark to equate COVID with the respiratory illnesses that are annual but quite manageable burdens of a much less robust nature.
The daily death rate from COVID in the US is rising since the start of December, and we will almost certainly pass one million Americans dead of COVID within the next month or two. We do not have good data on how much of that is due to Omicron and how much is due to other variants, but it is patently morally irresponsible to be position-taking on what to do about COVID at this moment without taking the fact of the spike in deaths into consideration, or to downplay it by incorrectly making analogies to much less burdensome afflictions.
Omicron does seem to have fewer lower respiratory (lungs and bronchial tubes) symptoms than some other variants of the virus, which can apparently make it milder for older children and adults, especially those who have been vaccinated. But younger children—those under five, who cannot yet be vaccinated—can suffer major illness with upper respiratory system infections. Hospitalizations of young children have spiked upward during the advent of omicron in the US. Omicron seems to be much more infectious than other variants, and we already know that the number of people who are going to get it in the US will be very large, especially given how many Americans are still unvaccinated. Even if the percentage of those people who get seriously sick is smaller than in previous variants, the much larger numbers of infections will mean some significant number will die, and many more will need hospitalization. So we could easily find ourselves again facing the dismal question of how many Americans who need hospital beds for other reasons will not have them because those sick with COVID will be occupying them. It must be remembered that deaths from COVID are, unfortunately, not the only major impact it makes on us as a community.
Perhaps the aspects of COVID’s health burden that are the most systematically overlooked by the anti-vaccination conservatives who speak of COVID in the same tone as the flu are long COVID and MIS-C, or Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. At this date, we still know relatively little about either beyond their ability to cause long-term organ damage and other serious conditions in sufferers. Long COVID might affect a very significant number of those infected, even if many suffer only relatively mild long-term effects that ultimately do abate. But even if only, say, 5% of the infected are involved here, that is a large number when the total from which it derives is in the many millions. MIS-C is certainly rarer than long COVID, though we do not know precisely how rare, which is unsettling given its potential severity. It can cause major organ damage and be life-threatening. Children infected by COVID-19 who showed only mild symptoms have been among those diagnosed.
I should like to see how anti-vaccine conservatives propose to tell parents of children diagnosed with either of these conditions how we are looking at something as unremarkable as the common cold. It would also be interesting to hear how they make sense of the comparative risks of myocarditis after receiving the COVID mRNA vaccines (at the highest rate, only 2 per 100,000 vaccinated 12-39 year old females and just over 6 per 100,000 males) and of diagnosis of MIS-C after a COVID infection (more than 30 per 100,000 under age 21, or five times the myocarditis rate).
The vaccines offer very significant protection against serious illness and death, but their ability to hinder infection altogether is less, and we don’t know yet how they will affect Long COVID and MIS-C directly, though some research shows vaccines protect against MIS-C. They will certainly affect them both positively in the indirect manner of reducing the amount of overall infection in the population.
“You get vaccinated if you want, and I won’t if I don’t. What’s the problem? You’re protected.”
What’s the problem? It’s that the protective effect of vaccination works probabilistically, not absolutely. My risk of disease goes down with vaccination, but not to zero, and your decision not to vaccinate raises the likelihood that the virus will stick around longer and potentially cause breakthrough cases in me and other vaccinated people. And the more people there are who decide as you do in refusing vaccination, the more likely it is that the virus will stick around and mutate more and potentially elude our current vaccines through that mutation. Omicron has apparently done just this.
And what about those mouthing the words above who are the parents of dependent children? I know of no moral principle that undergirds a purported ‘right’ to recklessly risk one’s own life, though the risk be low, and thereby deprive one’s children, also free citizens of this republic, of their source of protection and welfare. And, to speak the libertarian’s language that so many vaccine critics use, why should such people have the ‘right’ to shift their parenting burden to the rest of us through their own negligence?
But most unvaccinated people who get COVID will not die, it will be countered. This is true. Enough do, however, that it has been easy for gleeful leftist critics to find and then relentlessly mock the significant number of high-profile anti-vaccination and anti-masking advocates on the right who contracted COVID and died of it. That is of course an evil act that cannot be sufficiently denounced. But the nearly total silence about the unnecessary nature of those awful deaths, about the children those people so irresponsibly left without parents and the spouses they left alone, on the part of too many of their conservative anti-vaccination brethren is hardly admirable. And the ongoing contribution to confusion and ignorance about the seriousness of this pandemic on the part of those folks will inevitably help produce more such deaths. It is hardly conservative to crow about the freedom to die and leave children and to make more likely the deaths of others, not in a heroic struggle to preserve a community, but of a disease for which we have safe and effective vaccinations.
“There is no difference in COVID outcomes in red states with low masking frequency and blue states with masking mandates, so masking is ineffective.”
This is simply not true if you look closely at the available data. The overwhelming balance of research on masks shows protective effect against COVID infection. State-by-state comparisons in the US are complicated by many variables, but international studies of countries that had country-wide policies one way or another show a clear benefit to masking. And the consensus of data in the US shows the same thing.
It is undeniable that the CDC badly botched messaging on masks early. There are several reasonable hypotheses as to why that happened. And there is no doubt that missteps like that are hugely costly when much of the population, for at least some good reasons, is already skeptical of what government officials say about anything.
That the CDC has gone back and forth on the issue, though, is not proof that there is no answer to the question of the efficacy of masks. States with poor masking behaviors at the population level tend to have high infection rates and high death rates. Untangling the connection requires some labor, as it is complex, but some things are reasonably clear. Many red states have a combination of low vaccination rates and poor masking behavior, and many of those states have high infection rates and death rates. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, for example, are all near the top in the US in infection and death rate, as can be seen at the extensive Johns Hopkins COVID site here. Virtually no Southern states have death rates as low as the mean for the rest of the country.
But some states with higher vaccination rates and more serious masking protocols are not doing well on this variable either, my critics will respond. This is true, but it does not mean that vaccination and masking have no effect. Factors like population density matter; states with many or very large urban centers in which many hundreds of thousands live in concentrated areas may have high infection rates despite relatively high vaccination rates and widespread masking. Another factor that doubtless plays a large role in determining the relative morbidity of COVID in a given population is the prevalence of health deficits or co-morbidities in that population. Obesity, which is a major health problem throughout the US, is perhaps the main offender. It is almost certainly true that the relatively high mortality rates of black COVID sufferers is related to obesity and other co-morbidities in that sub-population of the country. Vaccination and proper masking help the obese against COVID infection, but populations with lots of obese people are going to do more poorly even if they vaccinate and mask effectively compared to populations with fewer obese people. The South is at the front of the pack nationally in percentage of the population that is obese.
In short, the evidence suggests quite strongly that populations with high concentrations of the obese who do not vaccinate or mask well will do comparatively poorly with COVID.
Conservatism, the individual, the community, and compassion
It is presumed mostly without argument, both by proponents and opponents of COVID-skeptical right, that the political principles behind their position are deeply conservative. Is that so? The common denominator of much of the anti-vaccination rhetoric on the right is “I should be free to choose—don’t force me.” Let’s shorthand this as the Gadsden Flag conservative position. While they are certainly right that freedom is a value conservatives cherish, it also has limits in application. I am not free to drive whatever speed I want around the school. I might be perfectly certain that I’m capable of doing that safely, but the general welfare trumps my desire to crank it up to 80 mph in an area where there are frequently 5 year old children walking in groups. Why, the most radical libertarian might ask? Because the right to life of those children trumps your desire to drive your car recklessly. The individual must sometimes subordinate, or better, sublimate his own interests to the interests of the community, and especially the community’s most vulnerable members.
The same reasoning applies with respect to public health threats such as COVID. In asserting my purported right to not take reasonable and safe steps to best protect myself and others around me, I am simply discounting that larger communal entity of which I am a part. It is not a conservative position to assert an individual right to act free of any consideration of the welfare of others in his community. The precise balance of the two interests must be calculated before one is justified as a conservative in acting against the communal interest.
A crash refresher course in modern political ideologies might perhaps be of use here. The three major ideologies that emerge as dominant contenders for the direction of modern societies in the wake of the revolutionary epoch of the late 18th century are conservatism, liberalism, and radicalism. Each sees a different ultimate good that human society ought to seek and protect. For radicals, it is equality, and this is to be pursued through the ceding of power to a revolutionary government. For conservatives, it is not freedom, but sacred tradition and the autonomous life of local communities to establish and preserve it. It is liberalism, not conservatism, that sees the freedom of individuals as a sacrosanct principle to be protected from any collective and moral principles outside the free individual.
Conservatives certainly recognize the value of individuals, especially their spiritual value, but they understand that free-standing, autonomous individuals do not exist in history. Indeed, they are inconceivable given what we know of human nature. It is a conservative imperative that individuals must recognize the moral responsibilities they have to not just one but three interrelated communities: those of the past, the present, and the future. We commemorate and venerate our ancestors who went before us and made the culture and society we now enjoy. We protect and nourish our descendants, who will carry on our culture and our community when we are gone. We humble ourselves before the community in which we live our lives when such is morally right. In all three cases, we often sacrifice pursuit and possible realization of our own immediate self-interest for an interest that exceeds it—that of the moral community.
One hears almost nothing of the community and its needs in the language of the anti-vaccination Gadsden right. The abuse of the concept on the left should be criticized, and robustly, as I have done, but the refusal of the left’s manipulation of it does not mean the notion is meaningless. Community is after all our baseline concept, not theirs. The anti-vaccination conservatives claim that the state power benefits from imperatives to vaccinate. There may well be ways that could do so, but such danger ought to be, and almost never is, weighed against the benefit to community.
How do you help those around you—not the state, but your neighbors, your friends, your family—by vaccinating? In a straightforward way. You decrease the likelihood that you will be infected or that, if infected, you will suffer serious symptoms, which decreases the likelihood that you will require medical resources that others in greater need might require, and you decrease the likelihood that you will infect others who might be more vulnerable than you. You also help to decrease the likelihood that the virus will have more time and more iterations to further mutate and escape vaccination efficacy.
What is the purported individual interest stacked against this by the anti-vaccination conservatives? My right to my health, it is asserted, since we do not know if the vaccines are truly safe. But we have now the empirical evidence of many, many millions of people around the globe fully vaccinated and tiny, tiny numbers of people harmed by those vaccinations. The good done by all those vaccinations overwhelmingly outweighs that minuscule amount of harm. My right simply to do as I like must be weighed against the good that will be done by my getting vaccinated.
In truth, the ”Don’t Tread on Me” faction on the US right is always in some danger of falling into solipsistic narcissism. “It’s all about me!” is hardly a conservative view of the world. One thinks here of the way in which some men who purport to be on the political right present, as a counter to the feminist view of sex roles, a stereotype of the hyper-macho churl as the conservative male ideal. But the conservative male ideal is not the reckless bully who uselessly throws his life away in a fight for status with other such miscreants. It is the father, the husband, the brother who sacrifices his own interest for those of his loved ones and his friends and those who share his culture, who bravely faces enemies and threats to those loved ones and falls in struggle with them if necessary. The assertion of bravery is not about him, ever. It is about others he has a sacred responsibility to protect. Compassion for the weak and the vulnerable among us, a central Christian virtue, seems in short supply in the articulations I have seen of the position of the anti-vaccination Gadsden right.
Hostility to power from above is a conservative hallmark from the beginning. But why is power from above to be resisted? Merely to strut and preen in one’s autonomy from it? No, the reason that power is to be resisted is that there is a true source of morality and human commitment that must be protected from it. The positive good of the community, to which we dedicate ourselves, is the justification for opposition to the power from above. Freedom for freedom’s sake is a non-value. It requires an end. Love for the other members of our community and the desire to protect them and aid them in the struggle of life is that end.
The discussion must be nuanced, that much is certain. There is room for some caution about vaccines when it comes to the young. The Moderna vaccine especially seems to pose a non-negligible risk of cardiac problems for boys, though these are overwhelmingly mild, and it may be that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine is more than enough to confer added protection from serious disease to the youthful who do not have comorbidities. But some children could have comorbidities about which they and their parents are unaware, and these would benefit from full vaccination. And, again, there are communal benefits to fully vaccinated young people who are less likely to spread the virus to those at greater risk. Note well: not “rendered incapable of spreading the virus to others,” but merely “less likely.” Probabilism, again, is our only effective language here
Overreaching paternalism by the left has undoubtedly produced much harm, especially in the psychological costs of isolation during over-extended lockdowns, missed educational opportunity for children, and consequences of other serious health problems due to COVID-provoked postponement of necessary treatments.
But the carelessness and moral solipsism of too many on the right, especially those with a big platform but including all those who endeavor to spread their views about COVID in the public form, are contributing to catastrophic decision-making by too many Americans. People are dying, their children and loved ones left bereft and alone, because of misguided, anti-conservative reasoning about our responsibilities to one another during a serious pandemic disease for which we have imperfect but still powerful vaccines.
In a public setting this past weekend near my central Pennsylvania home, I was shocked and saddened to see how many people there were unmasked, seemingly having decided that the COVID threat is over and determined to pretend that it’s 2018 again. This, as a new variant of the virus that is perhaps 70 times more contagious than Delta is ripping through our deeply politically and culturally red region. Many of these unmasked people were visibly obese, and our local data shows that barely half of us are fully vaccinated here.
A vigorous conservative and Christian recollection of the way our lives are intimately connected to those around us would reduce the number of needless tragedies to come.