Worrying about my unvaccinated friends

Since mass vaccinations against Covid-19 began this past spring, I’ve become aware of a small number of friends and family who remain unvaccinated by choice. Some I suspected would be, and some I was surprised about. At this point, I’m aware that the number of such folks might be considerably higher than I’d realized. Covid vaccination seems to be something people do not talk openly about – or at all, unless absolutely necessary – with people they think would disagree.

It feels like an invisible wall has gone up between those who see vaccination as a civic responsibility and those who see it as optional (or tyrannical) – and I get why. People who refuse the vaccine probably assume (and they’re likely mostly right) that they will deal with criticism if they speak openly to anyone who is not of the same mind. And I can say, from my gratefully-vaccinated perspective, that I would hesitate to start that conversation with friends for fear of them feeling attacked simply because I’m on the “other side.”

I don’t want to attack them. I love and miss these friends, and don’t want to lose them. I just wish I knew what the factors were in their decision. I wish I could understand… Because for me, there was no inner debate about getting the shot. I teach 100-150 kids every week – I could hardly wait for my turn.

According to statistics, the vast majority of people becoming seriously ill and/or dying of Covid-19 at this point are unvaccinated. It is also said that if you are unvaccinated, you can count on being infected with the delta variant this year, it being so very contagious. I am feeling very anxious for my unvaccinated friends right now. Honestly, I am wondering if I will ever get to hang out with them again. If that sounds melodramatic… well, this IS melodrama. Covid-19 has been sensationalized in every way possible. We have ALL the emotions and they’re running high. People of all ages are DYING.

And I’m wondering: under the current circumstances, why aren’t unvaccinated people feeling anxious for themselves?

I have written about vaccination before, but in the past, it seemed mostly academic. Now, the question looms large over all of us, stirring animosities and even breaking up friendships – and families. Hostile feelings grow because this is, literally, a life-and-death situation.

The delta variant is strong and ravenous, and people who have chosen not to be vaccinated make very welcoming hosts for it. When governments and the public alike are begging everyone to get vaccinated, what is still holding people back?

influenza-epidemic-emergency-hospital-kansas
Image via Wikimedia Commons. Emergency hospital in Kansas during influenza epidemic.

Fear

I think that fear is a big factor – either fear of the vaccine, or lack of fear of the disease. Both of those things, I think, would decrease greatly if people had first-hand experience with Covid-19.

One of the first things I learned about this disease was right at the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, when it became clear that my sister Emily had Covid-19. And then she was still sick weeks later. And then she was still sick months later.

She contracted the disease despite being a very healthy individual – she’s in her 40s, with no risk factors. She’s always eaten lots of veggies, and besides dancing regularly, she walked and cycled all over the place (she doesn’t drive). Her initial infection was relatively mild – but then Covid took her out of normal life completely for six full months. She couldn’t work. Many days, she could barely get up, and had trouble feeding herself, taking showers, and other basic daily activities. She has suffered through symptoms including insomnia, breathlessness, prolonged dizziness, brain fog, severe heart rate fluctuations, loss of taste and smell, extreme heat sensitivity, hair loss, numbness, skin problems, exercise intolerance, alcohol intolerance, and exhaustion resembling chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) – where if she crossed that invisible line of exertion on a day she felt a bit better, she would be much worse the next day. Even now, a year-and-a-half later, she still deals with heart rate and sleep issues, with occasional flare-ups of other symptoms, and is not back to her previous level of activity.

And in the context of the grassroots Long Covid support groups that Emily is part of, her case has been much less severe than many. Among other things, some people have fatigue and brain fog that have not improved, or endless tinnitus, and in many cases, the virus has triggered serious conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, costochondritis, pericarditis, asthma, and emphysema (and the list goes on). Life is not getting back to normal for them – even people who were very fit and active before 2020. Emily has told me of people she knows (some of whom have been covered in the news) whose symptoms were so bad, so interminable, that for them, Covid death came in the form of suicide.

Knowing about this Covid manifestation was a big factor in my whole family wanting to be vaccinated as soon as possible. We wouldn’t wish Long Covid on anyone – and I don’t even know how my family would function if Sean or I (or God forbid both of us) contracted it. Now I’ve been reading about children dealing with Long Covid as well – and it is appalling, heartbreaking. 

We also had an opportunity to speak with a medical resident last month who, when asked about the pandemic, was quite frank. She said “We don’t talk about everything we see, but it’s awful. We’re seeing a lot of younger people in the ICU. We see parents who die and leave little kids behind without even getting to say goodbye in person. The delta variant is extremely dangerous. If you get intubated for Covid, almost nobody lives to get extubated.”

To make things even more vivid, the other day, I read this very disturbing account of the seven stages of severe Covid-19. The way one’s ability to access oxygen goes down and down. I used to sometimes experience that feeling of waking up unable to breathe. It’s so scary. It would take me several minutes of deliberate slow breathing to calm myself from the panic that would engulf me due to that suffocating feeling. Reading that article, I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to die of a respiratory disease – where it would feel like “drowning” – and praying that would never happen to me or my loved ones. For that horrible, panicked feeling to be your last experience on the earthly plane… It doesn’t bear thinking about. Add the idea of a child dying this way – or losing a parent this way – I can’t even find words for the awfulness.

Then, the week before school, I read a Facebook post by Erin Orion, a brave, wise f/Friend whose child has spent much of their childhood fighting leukaemia – the same kind she herself fought as a child. She has written a lot about health privilege, in solidarity with people who are immunocompromised. Those families can only hope that herd immunity will protect them from deadly diseases like Covid-19, which would almost surely be fatal for the medically vulnerable. She asks (knowing that she may sacrifice friendships by speaking out): “If you passed COVID along to a child with cancer, and it killed them, could you live with yourself? Knowing that you, consciously, intentionally, made a life choice that cost a brave warrior their life and a mother their child? Could you live with that?” This is the kind of question that shines light on the assertion that getting vaccinated is an act of love.

I am not saying that the vaccines don’t have side effects – and, in rare cases, severe ones. But Covid-19 can do damage that is permanent. And people with risk factors that make them more susceptible to side effects are generally, of course, also more vulnerable to the disease itself. You could say that it’s a gamble either way, but the stakes are much higher with the actual virus.

My point here is that this disease is very, very scary. If unvaccinated people think Covid-19 won’t touch them, won’t make them suffer, well… they might be right, but they might be dead wrong. The odds are not in their favour.

People who do “their own research” about vaccination need to be making sure that they are reading peer-reviewed studies, and that they know how to interpret them in context. Otherwise, it is not research. Opinion, speculation, and hearsay have no place in a debate this dangerous.

{I feel it’s also worth mentioning that we trust scientific research when it comes to the safety and functionality of our homes and appliances and cars – and bridges and airplanes, not to mention ventilators and defibrillators. It’s odd that some feel entitled to question the experts’ research on this one thing.}

Freedom

Reading the news, I see that that for some people it’s not so much about fear but about “freedom.”

To that, I need to say that I want freedom too. So much. Has this past year-and-a-half felt free to you? It hasn’t to me. I would dearly love to be free of the masks, free of shutdowns, free of the dreaded “pivoting”. I would like my children and my students to be free to play with whomever they want at school, free to talk and socialize during lunch, free to sing and assemble and play sports unmasked, free to visit friends like in the old days. I want us all to be free to hug and dance together and share cozy meals and go to shows, and gather with each other to grieve and celebrate and just be human. Doesn’t that sound good? Aren’t we all sick of the status quo?

But I only want to be free when it’s safe. Believe me, I don’t enjoy the protocols, restrictions, and lockdowns. In fact, I am really f–cking sick of them. I’m also sick of the anger, sadness, and anxiety that go along with pandemic life. But I don’t want to pretend that we’re free of Covid when we are clearly not. (Looking at you, Alberta.) Pretending is just irresponsible. The fourth wave is not imaginary. The fourth wave is growing, and it is where deathbed vaccine regret reigns.

What anti-vaxxers seem to disregard is the fact that the unvaccinated population is what allows delta to flourish. We’ve waited a long time, but freedom is still not here. And it won’t be, as long as delta has so many people to call home. We will just have more variants – maybe even worse ones – and more waves. It’s a demoralizing thought.

Last week, my kids and I headed back to our schools full of children too young to be vaccinated. We are beginning yet another year of masks, distancing, sanitizing, and the constant, soul-grinding worry that the kids will get sick. That worry is much worse this year than last year, thanks to delta. Already, after only a few days of school, there were positive cases in several schools in the city, and attendant class shutdowns. It’s terrifying.

Our teacher training before Labour Day included recognizing symptoms and protecting children as much as possible from Covid-19 (as well as allergens, concussions, bullying, abuse, and human trafficking). Even more, we talked about mental health. Helping kids through the stress gauntlet that this pandemic has created. It’s hard, because they are little children. They shouldn’t have to be worrying about existential threats. They need to just be kids. But the longer our society feeds Covid-19, the longer it goes on, the more I wonder if we will ever be free of this trauma in our lifetimes.

My point here is that this doesn’t look like freedom to me. I want real freedom. The kind of freedom that comes with safety.

Identity

The other thing I know to be a factor, at least for some people who have chosen not to be vaccinated, is that non-vaccination is, for them, part of their identity. For people who chose to believe, long ago, that vaccinations were dangerous, getting vaccinated now is a choice that seems unthinkable.

In fact, it requires great courage to allow oneself new ways of thinking. I know several people who have changed their minds about vaccination, seeing the need to protect vulnerable people, and I admire them for this bravery and open-mindedness. For their capacity to perform this act of love.

Part of the trouble right now is with large(-ish) numbers of certain other folks who have also made non-vaccination part of their identity. Some have made it part of their politics, even though public health should never be political. They use this crisis as a way to “stick it to the man” because they don’t want to be told what to do.

{In terms of government mandates, I don’t know about you, but when the government said we needed home insurance to own a home, we complied, for our own fiscal safety. When the government insisted I get a driver’s license before driving around by myself, I did so because it would have been stupid not to. When the government reminds us to renew our Health Cards, we do, so that if we’re ever in a car accident or having a baby or suffering from kidney stones or brain tumours we can go to the hospital without going bankrupt. Governments aren’t perfect, but they take many measures to ensure people’s safety. }

Some folks have also tied up their anti-vaxx convictions with certain other attitudes  – ones that send the world a big ol’ middle finger. Hence, some people have been protesting vaccines in front of hospitals, blocking access by paramedics and patients. Some are using their protests to air out their racist, misogynist perspectives. (And the gravel-throwing has become international news. How mortifying.) It’s an ugly, irrational mess, full of hatred and anger, selfishness and immaturity – and so much unsubstantiated information.

I hope I know my friends well enough to know that they are not among those impeding hospital workers or yelling slurs. They are good people, trying to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, even though they don’t mean to, they are allying themselves with these other people who have forgotten compassion. They are automatically – if unintentionally – part of the weight of that destructive movement. The movement, like delta, has momentum that depends on acceptance from a critical mass of people. With social movements, that acceptance doesn’t even have to be real – it just has to be perceived to be real, to be counted as such. (It’s kind of like the 2016 US election. Lots of voters just wanted to express political freedom and vote for a change. They ended up supporting Trump’s bigotry and heartlessness by default.)

As you have no doubt heard, medical professionals are burning out. I have a surgeon friend whose wife is an ER doctor; he recently told me about the dread and depression that has been looming over his family as the delta variant has gained traction. If we think it has been a long 18 months for us, dealing with protocols and lockdowns, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the profound exhaustion medical professionals are feeling at this point. They have been doing extra-long shifts, extra-short-staffed. They are having to delay other surgeries and treatments because all hands are needed on deck for Covid patients. In some regions, nurses are leaving the profession in droves because their working conditions are untenable. ICUs are filling up wherever there are large numbers of the unvaccinated. We cannot afford to lose the people who care for us when we’re sick, broken, or bleeding. For hospital staff to be confronted with protesters blaming them for their situations – it’s downright heinous.

I don’t know if my unvaccinated friends consider non-vaccination to be part of their respective identities. What I do know is that they are complex people, with qualities and talents that are worth infinitely more than this one decision. I truly, fiercely hope, for all of our sakes, that this is not the hill they will die on.

If you happen to be one of those unvaccinated people I love, and you’re still reading this, please know that these words aren’t meant as an attack. What this post really boils down to is that I care about you, and I don’t want you to die. I don’t want any more people to die of Covid-19.

There is only one infectious human disease that is considered officially eradicated. Smallpox, stamped out by vaccination.

Right now, Covid-19 has so much power over us – creating restriction, isolation, division, debilitation. I want us to take away the power of this disease to hold us down. There is only one way to do that.

And friends, if you ever manage to make that leap and perform this act of love, I would not think you weak for changing your mind. I would thank you for your service to the community. I would congratulate you on your courage and your critical thinking. And I would start looking forward to the time I could finally give you a big hug.

***

10 thoughts on “Worrying about my unvaccinated friends

  1. CG says:

    Di – wow. You’ve done it Again. (I shouldn’t be surprised!)

    You’ve so eloquently, gracefully and passionately said so much here!

    I just don’t get it. And, often, I don’t know how to deal with all the emotions surrounding that.

    I have been with those (previously healthy!!) mothers and fathers that go to ICU leaving their kids at home. I have spoken to those families days later while they still awaited news if their parent/spouse would survive. I have comforted family of COVID patients who did not make it. I have watched fatigue and burnout take an unfortunate dive to being “normal” in our staff and across the medical community.

    Frankly, tired does not begin to describe it. Period.

    If you are able, get the shot! An act of LOVE indeed. Don’t be the one we mourn, or watch suffer.

    Thank you for sharing Emily’s story. It makes a Human/direct connection to what we have all vaguely heard. It’s real, it’s close by, and you just DON’T KNOW. Fear (or perhaps lack there of!) Is terrifying. I hope she will continue to recover.

    You are an amazing, intelligent, brave person – I am grateful for you and your words. I will share ?

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      CG, thank you for your comment! I appreciate you bringing your perspective to this conversation. It is so valuable – and tragic – to hear your side of the story.

      I have been thinking about you so much, for multiple reasons, hoping you’re managing at a time when managing is so very hard for anyone on the front lines. YOU are amazing, intelligent, and brave. Please feel free to share as you see fit. <3 <3 <3

  2. Helen says:

    Argh, I wrote this whole long comment, then had to close my phone and it disappeared. In synopsis, the Friend speaks my mind. And I live and work in a vaccinated bubble. The only folks I know who are over age 12 and unvaccinated are Kim’s ex-best friend and her grandma. Her grandma’s attitude is, “If I get it and die, I get it and die.” Of course, in saying this, she’s forgetting that she’s her granddaughter’s guardian. The ex-friend explained her lack of vaccination as, “I know I probably should, but I’m scared of needles, and I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Oh boo, I know just how it feels to write something carefully and then lose it! But thank you for reading, and for persevering with your comment.

      That is sad to read about Kim’s ex-friend and grandma. Especially grandma – because if she “gets it and dies”, I just think it’s a really awful way to go. And an awful way for her granddaughter to lose her.

  3. Penn says:

    Thank you for writing this. I hope it convinces even one person to get vaccinated, and if it does you may well have saved a life.

  4. Yerpa says:

    This is one of the most cogent, thoughtful, and wise commentaries I’ve read about the pandemic and the confounding social divisions it has revealed. I suppose it’s too late for you to run for Prime Minister. Dang.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Haha, thanks, ‘pa. Prime Minister is right by long-haul truck driver in my list of jobs I hope never to do. I appreciate your support (emotional, political, and technical!). xoxoxoxo

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