Over the course of this pandemic, we’ve witnessed suffering and countless lives lost to an insurmountable and constantly adapting virus. Hundreds of thousands of deaths have occurred and even more friends and families have been left to grieve for their loved ones long after their departure. Perhaps one of the most confusing elements of this pandemic is the fact that a substantial amount of these deaths were preventable, had more people chosen to either comply with quarantine restrictions or receive a vaccine.
It’s especially difficult to address one of these deaths if they identify as an "anti-vaxxer," a group that has hindered our ability to effectively execute any countermeasures to the virus which requires the mass cooperation of society. One such instance occurred on January 5, 2022, when Kelly Ernby, a Californian Deputy District attorney and prominent anti-vaxxer, died from COVID-19. Only a few months prior in August, did she demonstrate support for Huntington Beach firefighters protesting a vaccine mandate and declared that “The vaccine is not the cure to Covid, and mandates won’t work.”
In response to the announcement of her death, several people online and on social media had begun to ridicule her and posted on the Reddit subreddit HermanCainAward as well as the website sorryantivaxxer.com. Both HermanCainAward and sorryantivaxxer.com are online spaces dedicated to the public humiliation of former anti-vaxxers who have lost their lives to COVID. The mass response to Ernby’s death as well as the mere existence of these spaces which publicized her death are incredibly concerning indications of both America’s heightened political polarization as well as its rapidly decaying sense of morality.
In all honesty, the intense feelings of rage that have helped promote the popularity of these kinds of sites is understandable. It’s frustrating to experience the unnecessary loss of those who were responsible and followed safety protocol yet realize that there are those who disobeyed and protested these protocols that have suffered little to no consequences for their actions. This isn’t to say that we haven’t sympathized with anti-vaxxers, as there are those of us who have but are simply exhausted from caring for people who care very little about the impact of their ignorant and uninformed choices, which only contributes to our anger and indifference towards their death.
However, we shouldn’t allow our rage blind and consume us. Once we finally witness an anti-vaxxer die from the virus they’ve repeatedly been opposing the legitimacy of, it’s easy to claim that it was some cosmic act of “karmic justice.” Admittedly, it’s easy to fall into this attitude towards anti-vaxxers, but it’s one that we should be aware of and strive to avoid.
Professor Colin Wayne Leach, who studies Psychology at Barnard College, noted that this bias against anti-vaxxers is symptomatic of a psychological phenomenon referred to as "schadenfreude." Schadenfreude is a German term that describes the enjoyment one experiences while watching your enemy suffer, and in this scenario specifically, it offers validation as the anti-vaxxer’s death from COVID clearly exposes the fallacies of their arguments. The prevalence of Schadenfreude is alarming as it only helps to further the divide surrounding this pandemic, and solidifies two opposing sides which are using their contrasting ideals to dehumanize each other.
Rather than trying to dehumanize each other, we should attempt to understand why the unvaccinated choose to remain in that status. While there is an overwhelming amount of anti-vaxxers whose reasons stem from misinformation and thus mistrust in the vaccines and the institutions which distribute them, there are also those with valid concerns which disproportionately affect members of the lower classes. Such concerns include a lack of proper access to a vaccine (regarding both affordability and transportation), as well as the potential side effects of the vaccine thus hindering their ability to work and receive much-needed pay.
Overall, quite a few of the individuals who refused to comply justified their refusal on false or misinformed claims while also hindering the process towards achieving collective safety. While this isn't necessarily false, there are those who feel the benefits of the vaccine can’t possibly outweigh the costs of it. Specifically, those of lower-income status simply couldn’t receive a vaccine even if they intended to, or they fear for their livelihoods if they can’t quickly recover from the side effects. Ultimately, in our pursuit of improving humanity and attempting to restore society to some sense of normalcy, it’s pertinent that we ourselves do not abandon our own sense of humanity.
Perhaps, to some minimal extent, the actions of anti-vaxxers don’t warrant our sympathies, but we could instead try to reframe our mindset towards them and remember that they are still victims of this virus as well.