As drought was plaguing Utah last month, residents of the state prayed for rain to help crops grow and to quell the fires burning dry land. When the rain finally came, flash flooding followed. As a result, some Utahns experienced fears of either too little or too much precipitation within a matter of days.
Still, in neither scenario did I see people blame heaven or one another for their paradoxical misfortunes. Instead, families rallied together to protect homes and businesses caught in the pathway of the flames and floods.
In light of the FDA’s Monday announcement that it gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, I hope we can finally apply such attitudes to preventing more of COVID-19’s destruction instead of lamenting over the pandemic’s paradoxes.
When I interviewed a Harvard epidemiologist for a story I wrote for National Review last summer, he told me we’ve got to stop looking at preventive measures as “something we are doing to ourselves,” and see them as “something the virus is doing to us.” He added that “it’s a horrible situation, and there is no way out that doesn’t come with some major consequences, no matter what you do.”
That sad truth from a year ago is, unfortunately, still true today.
The tragedies, consequences and preventive measures of this pandemic have extended far beyond our initial expectations. Masks are making a return as hospitals are once again exceeding their capacities. Booster shots are coming even though many people haven’t received any COVID-19 vaccine yet. And an economy that seemed to finally be coming back to life is having to tap the brakes all over again.
In the wake of all this, the moans and groans of last year have turned into complete intolerance.
Almost daily I see social media posts about people being “done” with vaccine pushes and face masks, as if their simple disdain for the preventive measure proves they are unnecessary. That’s not unlike someone being “done” with practicing water conservation throughout a drought: Yeah, it stinks, but the alternative is even worse.
The reality is, this pandemic is far from over whether we like it or not. Sure, new case numbers have ebbed and flowed since last March and we’ve felt more optimistic at some points than others. But we’ve learned that when new cases skyrocket, hospitalizations and deaths soon follow, and that’s what happened when Utah hit its highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations last month since the beginning of 2021.
In the end, we must agree on proven methods that slow and stay this virus while at the same time trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life.
The great news is by now there are many proven measures to help us do that very thing, though some measures have proven more effective than others.
For instance, many friends have lamented that there hasn’t been enough education addressing some of the preventable comorbidities (such as obesity) that increase COVID-19’s lethality.
Others say that general health and wellness practices like improving sleep, getting more exercise and eating better to keep our immune systems up hasn’t been recommended often enough.
And some just wish there was more research about other preventive medicines, antibody drugs or even supplements that have shown to be at least somewhat effective against this coronavirus.
Anyone that’s made these points is absolutely correct in doing so. I understand their desires to see such improvements and I appreciate their frustrations.
But the logic falters when they tout the benefits of a handful of preventive measures while flouting the preponderance of data about some of the safest and most effective measures we have, such as masks and vaccines.
Since this pandemic began, I’ve interviewed by phone or email exchange hundreds of epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, none of whom have told me a more surefire way to end the pandemic than getting a significant percentage of the population immunized. And not a single expert has told me that masks aren’t effective. (Though several have suggested that some masks work better than others and that masks are most effective when a significant majority of people are wearing them.) And study after study has proven the safety and efficacy of both measures.
Despite such evidence, masks and vaccines have been the last preventive measures that some people are willing to get behind because too many people view such efforts as things others are trying to do to them instead of courses of action everyone needs to get behind.
As I’ve seen others point out, when many of us prayed for an end to the pandemic last year, God answered those prayers with something that was supported by religious leaders and scientists alike. We were given lifesaving vaccines that could have extinguished this virus, hopefully in a similar way to how other vaccines eradicated diseases like polio and smallpox.
Instead of recognizing such scientific marvels for the modern miracles they are, many rejected them outright, giving the virus the chance to mutate into something current vaccines are less effective against.
It calls to mind the story of a drowning man who prayed for help but when a boat floated by, said, “never mind, Lord, I’ve found a boat and don’t need your help after all.”
Except, in the worst cases of the pandemic, some people would rather let that lifesaving boat float by, preferring instead to focus on its flaws and not the fact that it could save their life.
At some point, many more of us are going to have to find the courage to get on board and do everything we can to defeat this disease. (Hint: eating more salad isn’t going to be enough.)
We’re all sick of this pandemic. We all hate wearing masks. We all fear more lockdowns and another run on grocery stores. And none of us wants to be that one person in a million who could suffer a serious vaccine side effect.
But this virus is infinitely more dangerous than any of the preventive measures proven to stop it, and we desperately need to unite against it the way we’ve rallied against many other disasters.
In the end, a collective intolerance for a disease that’s already killed nearly 4.5 million people won’t protect anyone from its horrors.
Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah and a Deseret News contributor. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times.