The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging for many months now, marked from the onset by lies about the disease, its origins, its treatment, and its prevention. No aspect of the pandemic has been free from controversy and misinformation. In the middle of flame wars and whack-a-mole efforts to squelch anti-vaccine, anti-mask internet sites lies the confusion and grief of those who have lost loved ones to this disease (over 700,000 in the US and 4,800,000 worldwide).
Like many others who believe in science, I was first puzzled and then appalled by the cloud of outright falsehoods that grew up around vaccination. Refusing the vaccines based on illogical and unfounded internet rumors struck me as downright suicidal. Equally troubling were the friends who bought into those lies.
One was a long-time, very dear friend who had supported me through dark times and whom I had supported in turn. Early in 2020, L told me that she didn’t trust the mRNA vaccines and besides, she thought she’d had a mild case of COVID-19, although she was never tested. But she was diligently wearing a mask at work, and it was clear that further discussion would only be confrontational, so I backed off. For the next year, all appeared to be going well. Then she moved to another part of the country, one with low vaccination and mask-wearing rates. I heard from her while she was waiting at an urgent care center for a persistent cough. Her COVID-19 test was positive. A few days later, she was admitted to the ICU. We talked and texted frequently as her condition deteriorated. After a week and a half, she was placed on a ventilator. She died two weeks later. Her last text to me was, “I love you.”
During her hospitalization, I felt not only growing concern for her, but anger. Anger at so many things. After her diagnosis, I wanted to scream at her, “How could you fall for that conspiracy nonsense?” Then my fury spread to everyone who spread those lies, manipulated statistics, and otherwise terrified people into refusing the one thing proven to save their lives. Anger at the last administration and the former president, who failed to take action at the onset of the pandemic. Anger at the officials in her state for their lax measures and cavalier attitudes to the virus. Anger at everyone who touted ineffective remedies in order to make a profit. And most of all, guilt that I hadn’t pressed the vaccine issue harder and been persuasive enough to save my friend’s life.
Grief mixed with anger and guilt isn’t logical. Nor is it simple.
While my friend was still alive, I realized how unhelpful it would be to be angry with her during her illness. The time to discuss vaccines was after the crisis, not when she was fighting to breathe. Armed with these thoughts, I did my best to work through this particular piece of anger or at least put a dent in it. I also talked myself through my part in what happened and acknowledge that there was nothing I could have done. The choices were hers, as were the consequences. But I believe in harm reduction. The price of making stupid decisions should not be death, although with COVID-19 it all too often is. I hoped that eventually my friend would have come around to getting vaccinated, but she ran out of time. Now I’m just sad.
My opinion of the anti-vaxxers hasn’t budged. I’m angrier and less patient with them than I was before. I still want to blast them with their responsibility for the death of my friend and so many others. I don’t go all-out on this, however. I have more important emotional work to do, mourning the loss of my friend.
When something bad happens, we try to make sense of it. We look around for someone to blame. Anger is part of grief, sometimes a greater or a lesser part. Whether it’s “F!ck Cancer” or coping with the murder of someone you loved, it’s there. In the case of COVID-19, it would be so easy to say, “What happened to you is your fault.” We don’t do that for other disease (although people with lung cancer know how readily others assume they smoked) or for violence or accidents or old age. It’s also true that if the folks who died from COVID-19 had been vaccinated, they would likely have had only a mild case. What do we, who loved them, do with our anger that doesn’t “blame the victim”?
I’m still in the middle of that process, but this I know: It’s complicated.
And yet we human beings have the capacity to hold two incompatible thoughts at the same time, or in this case, incompatible feelings. I know from my own experience that my greatest ally is time. Time for adrenaline to drain away; time for fond memories to arise; time for sorrow and sadness to gentle the hard edges of outrage.
I once said that before this pandemic has run its course, we will all know someone who died. I didn’t know it would happen to me so soon. I wish I’d been wrong. I wish everyone who’s promulgating those deadly lies would step back and realize they’re killing people. I wish everyone I care about would trust the science and get vaccinated. I wish I could just grieve and not have to deal with the anger.
But I do, and I will.
That’s part of the deal.