Reading Time: 5 minutes SEM image of coronavirus particles infecting a human cell Credit: NIAID, CC BY 2.0

Overview:

We shouldn't root for people to die, but we can and should conserve our empathy for those who are affected by COVID through no fault of their own, rather than those who could have protected themselves but didn't.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Very soon, the U.S. will cross a grim milestone: one million Americans will have died from COVID-19.

Actually, the official number is an undercount. We know of coroners who won’t put COVID on death certificates for political reasons, or because of pressure from families embarrassed to admit how their loved one died. We also know of people who died because they needed other medical care that they couldn’t get because hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID sufferers. Those are pandemic deaths as well, every bit as much as those who died from the virus itself. If you add these excess deaths to the total, we’re over a million already.

The death toll includes many who died through no fault of their own. There are the people who contracted the virus before a vaccine was available, especially health care workers and other essential workers like shelf stockers or bus drivers whose jobs made it impossible for them to isolate. There are people with weakened immune systems, for whom the vaccine isn’t effective, and very young children who still can’t get one. And, of course, there are people in developing countries who still don’t have the same access to vaccines as citizens of rich countries.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that since summer 2021 at the latest, every American adult who wanted the vaccine has been able to get it. While no vaccine works 100% of the time, the shots are very effective at protecting people from getting sick, and extremely effective at preventing hospitalization and death.

It follows that most of the COVID deaths since then have been among those who are unvaccinated by choice. That raises an ugly but inescapable question: How bad should we feel for those people?

Rolling the dice with their lives

I have no problem conceding that some of the unvaccinated have extenuating circumstances. They may have children or elderly relatives they have to care for around the clock, leaving them no free time to get the shot. They may live in rural areas without good transportation, too far to easily travel to a vaccination site. They may have unpredictable work schedules that made it too hard to schedule an appointment. They may have medical conditions that are genuine contraindications for the vaccine.

Since the Trump presidency, vaccine refusal has become a litmus test of the right.

But even if we’re generous with these exemptions, that still leaves tens of millions of Americans who’ve voluntarily chosen not to get a free vaccine. Of these, hundreds of thousands paid the ultimate price. They rolled the dice with their lives and lost.

Those who refuse the vaccine aren’t a random sample of society. Although there are anti-vaxxers across the political spectrum, since the Trump presidency, vaccine refusal has become a litmus test of the right. Specifically, it’s concentrated among the conservative white evangelicals who make up the backbone of the Republican party. (Even the flu shot now shows a sharp partisan difference in uptake, which wasn’t the case as recently as a few years ago.)

I’ve written about some high-profile examples. There are people like Phil Valentine and Pressley Stutts, who were both victims and perpetrators of disinformation. They were loudly, vocally certain that the virus was a little flu, nothing that anyone should worry about, and that lockdowns, masks and vaccines were a sinister liberal plot for social control. Both of them, like the countless others chronicled on sites like SorryAntiVaxxer.com or Reddit’s Herman Cain Award, suffered a karmic fate: they were laid low by the disease they scoffed at and then died from it. Their ideology took them straight to the grave.

How should we feel about vaccine deniers dying?

It’s a natural, understandable impulse to be angry at the unvaccinated-by-choice. They’re prolonging this pandemic and putting everyone at risk by helping the virus circulate. They’re the ones straining the health-care system to the point of breakdown. It’s so very tempting, when one of them dies from it, to say this is justice served and they’re only getting what they deserve.

It’s also a shoe-on-the-other-foot moment. After all, if it were progressives and atheists dying en masse, does anyone seriously believe the American right would waste a second feeling bad about it, much less that they’d try to help?

This isn’t just a hypothetical. At the beginning of the pandemic, when the virus was hitting densely populated liberal cities like New York and Seattle, Donald Trump did nothing because he had made a political calculation that it would mostly kill Democrats. He dragged his feet on a national test-and-trace plan, and his administration held back federal funds and medical equipment from federal stockpiles. He told Democratic governors to “try getting it yourselves“. He even seized ventilators from blue states so he could redistribute them as patronage for loyalty.

Further back in time, there’s also Ronald Reagan’s deliberate inaction during the AIDS epidemic—his administration literally laughed it off as a joke—because conservatives saw the disease as a “gay plague” that was God’s punishment for sinful behavior.

Now the situation is reversed, and anti-vaccine conservatives are reaping the deadly fruit of their ideology. The question irresistibly suggests itself: Are we witnessing natural selection in action? Should we keep trying to save vaccine refuseniks from themselves, or should we just stand back and let it play out?

Trusting science has survival value

In the strict sense, COVID deaths aren’t natural selection at work. Some people may be more susceptible or more resistant, but the major difference between those who are dying and those who aren’t is whether they’ve gotten the vaccine, and that isn’t determined by genes.

However, natural selection can work in an analogous sense: at the level of ideology, of ideas. Those people whose worldview reflects objective reality, who make prudent choices in the face of danger, are best positioned to survive. Those whose ideas cause them to stubbornly deny reality suffer the consequences when it comes crashing down on them anyway. That’s always been true, but never more so than now.

In this pandemic, there’s one question whose answer best differentiates between these two possibilities: “Do you trust science?”

People who heed the scientific consensus—who got the vaccine as soon as they could, who’ve worn high-quality masks, who’ve stayed home during large waves and avoided risky activities—have, for the most part, fared well. People who (knowingly!) scorned scientific guidance, who sought out any excuse to dismiss the experts, who declared they weren’t going to alter their lives in the slightest, have died by the thousands.

Those whose ideas cause them to stubbornly deny reality suffer the consequences when it comes crashing down on them anyway.

In short, trusting science is now a trait of high adaptive value. The world has changed, and those who refuse to change with it are dying out. Those who see the change coming and do what’s necessary to survive are the ones who will inherit the future. Again, that’s always been true, but the pandemic has cast this fact in stark, sharp-edged relief.

Natural selection, whether it arrives in the form of a novel coronavirus or in any other shape, is a blind and impersonal process. It has no morality; it recognizes neither good nor evil. But we humans do recognize good and evil, so it’s worth considering how we should feel about all of this. Here’s where I’m at.

I don’t think it’s moral to root for other human beings to die. Regardless of whether you feel a specific person deserves it, it’s an impulse that shouldn’t be encouraged, lest it take root and grow and choke off your sense of empathy entirely.

However, empathy isn’t an unlimited resource. I believe that, as a society, we should do everything reasonable to help each other. That means making the vaccine available to everyone, removing all barriers to access, and doing our best to educate people and persuade them to get it. If, after all this, there are those who still refuse—they should have to bear the consequences of their choice. We shouldn’t take heroic measures to save them, or tear our hearts out in pity for them, when they wouldn’t take even the simplest step to protect themselves.

We can’t help every needy person in the world, so we need to practice triage. That means we should conserve our empathy for those who are impacted by the pandemic through no fault of their own. Those who could have protected themselves, but didn’t, shouldn’t have first claim on either our help or our compassion for their plight. They should go to the back of the line.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...