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Perspective: Even in death, some COVID-19 skeptics pretend they weren’t wrong

Self-deception and dishonesty have become commonplace throughout the pandemic

A visitor sits on a bench to look at artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s “In America: Remember,” a temporary art installation made up of white flags to commemorate Americans who have died of COVID-19, on the National Mall, in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 eclipsed 700,000 late Friday, Oct. 1, a number greater than the population of Boston.
Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

Last month a 28-year-old father-to-be died from complications caused by COVID-19. The local news outlet that announced the tragedy concluded the story with an editor’s note: “(The deceased’s wife) granted … an interview on the condition we did not ask questions about the family’s vaccination status.”

I don’t know whether this couple had been vaccinated (though I wonder why else someone would want to withhold that information), but the following story has become familiar: Persons who refused to become vaccinated against COVID-19 tend to downplay their symptoms after contracting the disease; some won’t even admit they were wrong about the seriousness of the illness after it’s taken the life of a loved one.

The reality is that self-deception, downplaying and dishonesty have become commonplace throughout the pandemic and have occurred in places of worship, on the football field, in the White House and on campuses throughout America. (A recent survey found that more than half of unvaccinated students attending U.S. colleges requiring vaccines have lied about their status, and 1 in 3 employees infected with COVID-19 apparently don’t inform their employers about contracting the disease.)

No doubt these actions have contributed to people spurning vaccines, ignoring face mask recommendations and social distancing measures, and have aided a callous disregard for the health and well-being of others. Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, told me she’s even known people with apparent COVID-19 symptoms who adamantly refuse to get tested, and in some cases, note that they are still going into work and sending their children to school.

Karen Ernst, the program director of Voices for Vaccines, has encountered similar situations. “I can confidently say that since the beginning of the pandemic, many people have really been focused on themselves mostly and not concerned themselves about infecting others,” she said.

Indeed, I frequently learn about friends or family members who contracted the coronavirus weeks or months before but had deliberately hidden the fact that they had tested positive because they didn’t want to acknowledge that their symptoms were a lot worse than they previously thought or advertised. After learning about one friend who had COVID-19 some weeks earlier, I asked how she fared throughout her illness. “It was no big deal,” she said and shrugged nonchalantly. When she left the room a bit later, her husband leaned over and said, “It was actually pretty bad, and she still can’t taste and regularly complains that it hurts when she breathes.”

On the surface, her deceit is understandable. After all, she’d spent most of the past year downplaying COVID-19 on social media, and I know it’s hard for anyone to eat crow. On the other hand, I wonder at what point protecting one’s pride trumps protecting one’s loved ones.

Before the pandemic began, my experience was that people were willing to warn others of danger in one form or another. Warnings came by way of leaving a bad review, by shouting “fire!” where there was one, or telling one’s sister that her new boyfriend is a known cheat.

And though it seems like a rarer quality than it used to be, some of the people I respect the most are the ones willing to admit when they make a mistake. Indeed, I’m grateful that there are many people who initially downplayed COVID-19 or pushed back against vaccines who have come forward to warn others after they experienced the disease for themselves.

That level of humility and transparency is exactly what Smith told me can help move the needle for some of the people remaining on the fence about adopting preventative measures like vaccines. “I think personal stories are the ones that resonate most,” she said.

“I know it’s really difficult for people to come out publicly about making a mistake that endangered their lives,” said Ernst, but she added that doing so is a surefire way to help others avoid the same pitfalls. “We will only get out of this pandemic by convincing each person one at a time.”

Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times.