Early in the coronavirus pandemic, we talked about this curious bit of San Francisco history from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: A rally in the city some 2,000 people strong in January 1919 protesting a mandate about face masks, despite their proven efficacy and despite the ways that year's flu strain ravaged the city and killed thousands.
It's illogical, and it seemed for a brief moment like the kind of ignorant public display that only belonged to history, to a less enlightened time when it comes to medicine and public health.
"Yes, San Francisco may be a progressive place where we embrace science and listen to health experts these days, but a century ago, public fatigue with health orders relating to the influenza pandemic in its second wave incited protest," I wrote.
But now, 19 months after retelling that story, there are still protests all over the country about mask- and vaccine-mandates, and there was even one at the Golden Gate Bridge Thursday afternoon at which a man held a sign that said "Unmask Ur Brain." Because, as we all know by now, public health itself and mandates around safety have become politically toxic, even though all that we're talking about is the public good, the collective good, and keeping each other out of the hospital. Somehow, fighting for the collective good has become synonymous with loss — a loss of freedom, a loss of individuality, because these are what many Americans hold dear above what they see as overcomplicated notions of public health.
"My body my choice!" yells a popular sign that was also seen at Thursday's protest — a phrase that originated with the pro-choice movement and which has been coopted, ironically, by conservatives who disbelieve science and who may also be anti-abortion. None of them see this cognitive dissonance. Religion and the sanctity of all human life down to embryos is one thing when you're talking about the practice of abortion and a woman's right to choose. But human life during a pandemic should not come at the expense of "personal freedom," they argue, which really amounts to refusing to put on a simple mask in indoor public spaces and distrusting new vaccines.
And lots of these Americans, including Elon Musk in the spring of 2020, have continued to question whether the mortality rate from COVID is really all that bad.
Getting a vaccine which has proved highly effective and broadly very safe, after going into the arms of hundreds of millions of people around the globe, is much too scary for these folks. They need to do their own research — which may include listening to self-appointed, uneducated experts bent on conspiracies on YouTube. Because we can't trust anyone anymore, or the government — and if a Democrat tells you to do it, it must be evil!
This is all beyond exhausting, especially when you've had to write every day for the last 20 months about a pandemic in which three quarters of a million Americans have died. I have recorded these numbers every day since March 16, 2020. Do they not trust these numbers, or comprehend them? It's like a 9/11 every week, or three 9/11s some weeks. Does everyone need to personally watch an unvaccinated loved one suffer and die in order to be convinced? Why do some of us understand the concept of a global pandemic so fundamentally differently from others of us?
During the course of these infuriating 20 months we've heard from people who had severe COVID cases themselves who were reluctant to get a vaccine — in the case of one focus group full of Trump voters that was observed by This American Life earlier this year, it took being told by a fellow Republican, Chris Christie, that yes, he got very sick from COVID and so did Trump, to convince a couple of people to maybe go get a shot.
Law enforcement personnel, at least some segment of them, have been showing off their conservative bona fides by fighting vaccine mandates in cities with liberal mayors. Here in SF, it's only about 40 or so sworn officers out of 2,140 who are still facing due-process hearings about exemptions from the mandate, and who may face termination if they still refuse a vaccine. And one of their kind recently died from COVID — and COVID was the leading cause of death for law enforcement last year.
But these are just facts! And in a world where facts don't matter, and where on Facebook you can always find "alternative facts" to refute these facts, it certainly feels like the human race is largely failing to meet the moment.
I am truly sorry and sympathetic to all those whose businesses or livelihoods have been impacted over the last two years. That kind of pain and frustration with powers beyond your control, and with policy decisions that don't alway seem to make sense, is difficult to mollify or neatly sort out. But for all those communities around the U.S. where people are digging in their heels, denying that there is any ongoing threat from the virus and angry that any school or business was forced by a government to close, I wish we could all just go back and all take some kind of workshop together about how to function as a collective. It certainly wouldn't involve death threats to public health officials who honestly just don't want you to get sick or die.
We've lost that collective sensibility, or we never truly had it — and if you want to take pride in being an American, you shouldn't be able to do that without recognizing the shame of how we've collectively handled this crisis.
In America, where the scourge of Communism was ingrained in everyone starting in the middle of the last century, using words like "collective" might cause some to bristle. Throughout the miserable four years of Donald Trump's presidency, we had him and all of his supporters blindly, ignorantly chanting about "freedom" and "the Constitution," all while embracing a fascist view of how government ought to work.
Now, you have those same supporters and the most ardent vaccine doubters equating vaccine mandates with fascism — ignoring what a fascist Trump was as president and still dreams to be again, because, again, everyone seems to have their own definition. Vaccine mandates and passports are like the Holocaust, as the popular right-wing thinking goes — and as another poster from yesterday's protest said, "The Jews had special passports too."
Republicans have long been the party of the individual, of "small government" and "no handouts," so maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the collective good of public health measures is something they despise.
But let's be clear: It is fascist to want to rule with an iron fist, destroy the checks and balances of representative democracy to get your way, and to dictate that certain groups of people are superior to other people and deserving of punishment.
It is morally good and just to want to protect public health, and to slow or prevent the spread of a disease at the expense of some freedoms. I am willing to wear a mask and show my vaccine card at the door of a bar in order keep a red-state voter's mother or grandmother from dying. They are not willing to do the same for me. That doesn't sound like justice.
Now that we've screwed the pooch on squelching COVID-19, and we'll likely have to get annual COVID shots with our flu shots from now until who knows when, the discussions will be different.
Maybe next year there will be periods of time and places where masks are less necessary, but until more vaccine skeptics go get shots, it could be a while before it's truly safe to go to many places around this country, which are likely to keep seeing the "pandemic of the unvaccinated" arrive in waves, over and over.
Oral pills that tamp down COVID if you get it will help, and maybe once we have those this will be less scary, and masks can come off, and the protests can stop. But if we have another public health crisis in the not-too-distant future, I can promise you that the denials and the rejection of public health advice will happen even quicker, and perhaps with disastrous effect.
There was talk earlier this year about how Europe was going to get through the vaccination process better than America would because there's more of a sense of collective duty there — because WWII and blah blah. But European countries have had their own fuckups with the vaccine rollout and their own large pockets of anti-vaxxers so they're having a horrible new wave of the virus now, especially in Germany. So maybe their sense of collective duty is already disappearing with the generation that this pandemic is killing off in droves.
Does it take a war or a terrorist attack to give Americans a sense of collective duty? Or is it all just conflated with nationalistic, supremacist bullshit now, and the only thing most Americans can agree on is that they should never be told by the government to do anything. No matter what. Even in a war, or a pandemic.
Top image: California Public Library