Stop Death Shaming

Mocking the unvaccinated dead does not save lives.

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

A pointing hand forming from the top of a skull
Adam Maida

A record of the plague dead: Stacy Forbess, 55, an Alabama twirling coach; Haley Mulkey Richardson, 32, a pregnant Alabama nurse; Cindy Dawkins, 50, a Florida restaurant worker; Martin and Trina Daniel, 53 and 49, a Georgia couple married for some 20 years; Lawrence and Lydia Rodriguez, 49 and 42, a Texas couple married for 21. All unvaccinated, and all whose deaths were covered by various papers and TV stations, with notes of shame or contempt subtle in some tales and bold in others.

Whom are these stories for? They seem to aspire to be persuasive—perhaps the unvaccinated simply don’t realize, or haven’t accepted, that COVID-19 can be quite suddenly fatal, even for the otherwise young and healthy. In that case, they could use some frightening reminders, or so the reasoning seems to go.

But if persuasion is the target, then the aim seems off—a general problem in our democracy, where persuasion is a key method of self-governance but something we’re less and less amenable to. In that sense, the strange case of vaccine persuasion is just another entry in the annals of our disillusionment with our own liberal democracy. One receives the distinct impression from today’s discursive environment that persuasion in its traditional democratic form—wherein a great deal of value is placed upon shrewd and moving rhetoric that assumes listeners’ basic goodwill—is a useless venture, and that lower forms—insults, scolding, intra-group memeing, the dirty persuasion of disinformation campaigns—are all that’s left. Maybe those things are useless too, one gathers, but at least they’re fun and cathartic.

Still, it’s worth considering what an honest persuasion effort aimed at the unvaccinated or vaccine-hesitant would look like, even if we may never see the population-level vaccine uptake that we’d like to. Good-faith persuasion is a matter of discipline and habit; it’s not something that comes naturally. It also happens to be a practice that maintains the premise that liberal democratic politics can change, that they can respond to the shifting will of the people without violence or civil unrest. Perhaps we’ve already come near that point through lopsided, bitter polarization. But inasmuch as democracy is a shared vision—a collaborative dream about the kind of governance we’re capable of and the sort of future we could build—it’s crucial to keep its practices alive even when its functions have broken down. The dream is the last thing to go.

And so: What would a genuine persuasion effort look like, with respect to vaccines?

It would begin by examining what the unvaccinated say about their hesitancy to get their shots—by inhabiting their point of view, in other words, honestly and seriously.

In particular, the morality tale cum obituary disregards the fact that to persuade someone to do something, you have to present them with information that is persuasive to them, not strictly with information that’s persuasive to you. People who have chosen vaccination (like myself) are already convinced that being vaccinated radically improves their odds of avoiding the worst effects of COVID-19, and thus the shot sells itself. The tsk-tsk obituary reflects that exact mentality, which is useful only if you hope to persuade someone who would’ve already been persuaded in the first place. These stories also reflect (unflatteringly) some of the feelings of the vaccinated set toward the willfully unvaccinated: anger in need of discharging (plenty have written as much) and its cousin schadenfreude—glee at the radically false notion that dying of an illness is a form of moral comeuppance. (NB: No one here gets out alive.)

So what would persuade the unvaccinated? A recent iteration of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey asked unvaccinated Americans about their reasons for putting off or refusing vaccination against COVID-19, and allowed them to select more than one option, resulting in a set of ranked concerns for COVID-vaccine skeptics. Just more than half of the respondents listed the potential side effects of the vaccines as a major concern. Perhaps they’ve been paying attention to the news. The New York Times recently reported that myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, is more common after COVID-19 vaccination; likewise, NPR featured a story earlier this month on university researchers looking into thousands of claims of menstrual changes following vaccination, and two days later Reuters ran a news article noting that European regulators were probing a skin rash and a pair of kidney disorders as possible side effects of the vaccines. None of these potential side effects has yet been verified by rigorous research. I think the vaccines are worth the slate of (what appear to me to be) relatively minor known risks (particularly when weighed against the risks of severe complications from getting COVID-19), and I haven’t had any sort of trouble since my Pfizer shots, which I got back in April—but that set of concerns is at least distinct from the total recalcitrance sometimes imputed to the unvaccinated.

Down the list we go: Nearly four in 10 unvaccinated Americans don’t trust the vaccines, which might be an expression of concern about either efficacy or side effects; a similar proportion want to wait and see whether they’re safe, which, again, is a deflatingly concrete concern, if not the decision I would (and did) make in the same situation. A third don’t trust the government (brothers and sisters: same here), and only then do we arrive at the just less than a quarter who don’t believe they personally need a vaccine. A rung down, after the 22 percent who aren’t sure that the vaccines are actually protective, are another 17 percent who don’t see COVID-19 as a major threat—a fairly small minority, all things considered.

What strikes me about the responses of the unvaccinated—as opposed to the tempting caricature presented by their worst representatives in pulpits and politics—is that there does seem to be significant willingness to consider vaccination, though I doubt that persuasion lies in lurid accounts of death or allegations that the unvaccinated themselves are guilty of killing those who end up infected. There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization—the god-awful inclination of each political faction to double down on its worst tendencies when opponents satirize or criticize them—worsened by the gross incentives of traditional and social media. But skepticism precludes certainty. That means there’s still openness—to the right kind of persuasion.

Of course, that would require talking with someone who’s elected, thus far, not to be vaccinated. So I did just that. Last week, I called one of my uncles, who works in auto repair in North Texas. Chris is an honest, fair, and kind-hearted person, the easygoing one in a family of tightly wound people. When I asked him why he and his wife had chosen not to get a shot yet, he said they were still thinking about it.

“My whole thought process is that it hasn’t been vetted out yet,” he told me. “Nobody knows any long-term effects on this. You know what they tell you about it,” he submitted, but the FDA’s emergency-approval process has been very abbreviated, in his reckoning, compared with the full-approval process for other vaccines and lifesaving drugs.

Fair enough, I said. Had he seen any articles or news coverage explaining how the vaccines had been approved so quickly, or a good roundup of potential side effects and their risk profiles compared with that of the coronavirus itself?

“I haven’t heard anybody do that at all,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I don’t watch a lot of the news, because stuff like that, you’re almost—you’re almost ashamed if you don’t have it. You know, you’re trying to kill people. If you don’t get the vaccine, you’re killing people. And so I don’t watch a lot of it. But no, to be honest, I haven’t. Nobody’s ever, that I’ve heard, came out and addressed: ‘Hey, here’s how we did this so quick.’” The articles about all the unvaccinated dead aren’t persuading him; they’re not even reaching him.

And so we talked. He asked me a couple of questions about the vaccines. Do they contain fetal or embryonic cells? No, I said, though fetal cell lines are used in vaccine research. We chatted about the ethical implications of that—him, an evangelical, and me, a Catholic. I mentioned that Pope Francis has urged people to get vaccinated. The Church reasons that those who would now benefit from the vaccines weren’t those who had created the fetal cell lines used in the research. That sounded right to him.

“Like I said,” he added, as our talk wound down, “we’re not, you know—we’re still thinking about it. And I think the little bit of research I’ve done, I think I would probably get the Johnson & Johnson if I got one.” He said that he and my aunt are also keeping an eye on Novavax, a non-mRNA vaccine with a more traditional profile, currently awaiting approval in the United States. That one, too, seemed like a safer bet to him.

I felt good about our talk. I want him, my aunt, my cousins, my other uncle, and the rest of my extended family scattered across Texas and Louisiana to be all right. And I believe—but cannot prove—that wanting that for someone is more persuasive, somehow, than the darker, harder political emotions that dominate our discourse now.