Benicia Author Stephen Golub: Our “Lucky Town”: Unvaccinated Americans Procrastinate and Protest, Unvaccinated Foreigners Perish

Today’s dominant delta variant is the 2020 version “on steroids.”

By Stephen Golub, A Promised Land, July 24, 2021

My Last Lecture

I taught courses on law and international development at Berkeley Law School and elsewhere for quite a while. On the last day of class each year, I’d end with what I considered my “lucky” lecture to the students. It went something like this:

Among other things, I hope that this semester you’ve learned something more than what you knew before about how unfortunate many people in the world are, about the inequities or deprivation they face. I hope you also appreciate how lucky you are, and that, going forward, you find ways of giving back.

No doubt, many or most of you have had major disappointments or pain in your lives. And if you haven’t, you certainly will sooner or later.

But still, the very fact that you’re smart enough and lucky enough to make it to Berkeley Law means that you won the lottery. Whether out of some sense of justice, or faith, or thankfulness, or whatever, please consider ways of aiding the less fortunate as you pursue your careers and lives.

OK, it’s not the Gettysburg Address. But I hoped it resonated for at least some of the students, particularly since they’d shown an interest in the wider world by taking the course to begin with.


Lucky Us

Those providential sentiments are on my mind as I consider people blind to their blind luck. Specifically, so many Americans still refuse their nearly miraculous anti-Covid shots while so many people abroad perish for lack of them: perhaps four million in India alone, according to a recent study. It’s a kind of American exceptionalism, you could say.

As Bruce Springsteen wrote in a song that celebrated his community (that is, America), lamented what it had become and hoped for better days,  “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born.”

We know that America the Beautiful is a myth for many Americans, given the racial, economic, gender and other injustices plaguing our society.

But we’re still lucky, compared to the billions around the world who scrape by on a dollar or two per day, or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or are brutalized by war, or lack even minimal control over their own lives…

Or don’t have any access to vaccines while so many Americans turn up their lucky, privileged noses at inoculation.

Some caveats: In some cases, the distrust of vaccines springs not just from Fox News propaganda or general anti-vaxxer wackiness, but from the medical profession’s historical mistreatment of Black Americans. For some folks, the hesitation isn’t political or historical; it instead reflects simple ignorance of the relative risks of the shots versus the contagion. Finally, it’s not just Americans displaying this attitude; many Europeans are as well.

Risks from the Shot Avoiders

Regardless, the impact of procrastination or even protests over vaccination remains. As does indifference to others’ wellbeing, including by otherwise caring persons. Because of course that avoidance or resistance doesn’t only put the unvaccinated in harm’s way:

  • As a former senior health adviser to President Biden put it, the delta variant is “the 2020 version of COVID-19 on steroids.”  With this much more contagious and possibly more virulent variant now dominant, the danger increases for the immunocompromised and for unvaccinated kids.
  • Large swaths of unvaccinated populations enhance the chances of vaccine-resistant variants emerging.
  • Even the vaccinated may face increased chances of falling ill. Fortunately, the risks remain extremely low for contracting severe cases of Covid if inoculated. But recent findings from Israel (so recent that their apparent conflict with previous research has not been resolved) suggest that Pfizer’s vaccine is not nearly as effective at preventing mild cases. And as one major medical center puts it, “Even a mild case of COVID-19 can come with some pretty miserable symptoms, including debilitating headaches, extreme fatigue and body aches that make it feel impossible to get comfortable.”
  • Vaccinated persons may contract Covid from the unvaccinated, remain asymptomatic and unknowingly spread it to immunocompromised persons or to kids.
  • There’s the looming question of whether even a vaccinated individual’s mild case can lead to “long Covid”: symptoms lasting for six months or longer.
  • Finally, our knowledge of Covid and vaccination remains in flux at this early stage (yes, in some ways it’s still early) of the pandemic. Certain risks I’ve listed here could prove minimal. Or they could prove more dangerous as we learn more – as that Israeli research may indicate – or as new variants emerge. There’s so much we just don’t know.

So what could all this add up to?

Three things:

Joy (or At Least Less Misery) to the World

We need massive and urgent action for the unwillingly unvaccinated across the globe. This can’t be said too often (which is why I’ve often said it): As both a humanitarian matter and a matter of self-interest, the United States should spearhead a campaign to vaccinate everyone in every country ASAP. True, there are some such efforts underway, most notably COVAX. But they are far from sufficient as to scope and speed.

It’s also true that the logistics of such an effort are daunting. But in its absence, many more millions may die.

For those Americans who can only see this in terms of, pardon the expression, America First, the proposed U.S.-instigated campaign would be in our own interest in at least a few ways. It would:

  • help limit mutations that yield vaccine-resistant virulent variants,
  • portray the United States as a beacon of help and hope in countless countries, and
  • mitigate potentially significant economic harm here and abroad.

A Shot in the Arm for the Unvaccinated

We can hope that most unvaccinated Americans will come to appreciate how lucky they are, how little it requires to accept a protective shot or two and how much it can mean to others for them to do so.

Even as I write this, though, I think to myself, “Good luck with that.” It’s time for increased policy responses – by  government, businesses and other institutions – that create more pressure to come around. Thankfully, such moves may be underway, though they clearly could take hold in some states than in others.

Questions for the Rest of Us

How do we deal with the unvaccinated? Simply accept that they see the world differently, as Democrats and Republicans sometimes do (though such acceptance has tailed off in recent years, given what’s become of the Republican Party)? Avoid the touchy issue entirely, just as some refrain from discussing politics with relatives who support Biden’s predecessor?

The matter becomes more problematic as it becomes more personal and immediate. It’s easier if we don’t know who’s gotten inoculated and who hasn’t, which is the case for most settings. Ignorance is a sort of bliss.

But what if we know folks who refuse vaccination?

To pick just one type of scenario: Should we invite unvaccinated relatives to weddings, parties or other events, even if outside, where people might be drinking, laughing, shouting and doing other things that could help spread the far more contagious delta variant? Make the invitation contingent on their getting the shots or providing proof of a negative Covid test?

Conversely, if invited, do we refuse to attend such an event if they’re there? Attend, but decline to sit near them or interact with them in such settings? Just accept the (slightly?) greater risks and the potential ripple effects of increased transmission? ­­

As one Florida vaccine hesitancy outreach coordinator (what a title!) recently put it, in advising on attending a large outdoor gathering where you don’t know if everyone is vaccinated (and presumably if you know some aren’t), it’s a good idea to don masks or remain socially distant: “[T]he delta variant has shown that it’s rampant and unforgiving in its ability to spread…When you talk about outdoor weddings and parks, I think physical distancing is still a good thing because an infected person may be asymptomatic.”

Fine. So how do you remain physically distant at a wedding party?

The fact that a large event is outdoors does not assure protection in these uncertain times. The experience of a recent Dutch music festival might shed some light. As an experiment, the organizers required that the 20,000 attendees prove beforehand that they were vaccinated, Covid-negative or recently recovered from Covid. Yet more than 1,000 tested positive afterwards.

Many more questions than answers here. Welcome to the far-from-Brave New World that the delta variant and the unvaccinated have helped create.

Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.