Should I feel empathy for vaccine refusers who get COVID-19?

Coronavirus

In March, gatherers met outside the Texas Capitol for and against Gov. Greg Abbott keeping the statewide mask mandate in place (KXAN/Frank Martinez)

(KXAN) — As millions of vaccinated Americans look forward to slivers of normalcy in everyday life, the goalpost of care-free gatherings with family and friends has shifted away again — as a national surge in delta cases overruns communities and devastates hospitals.

For some, resentment has been the result: the vaccinated must now reckon with feeling like they’ve done everything they can — and everything they’re “supposed” to be doing — to quell the pandemic, while seeing others squash their hard work and sacrifice by refusing to follow COVID safe protocols.

“I was just reading an article about empathy and why vaccinated people need to have sympathy for the unvaccinated, and while I can see this, I feel like it misses something fundamental. Unvaxxed folk don’t have empathy for everyone else.”

@NikitaGamet via Twitter

Driven by misinformation (unintentionally inaccurate or misleading), disinformation and conspiracy theories (purposely inaccurate or misleading), and championing of personal choice, willing COVID-19 vaccination opposition is now coinciding with some wishing they’d believed sooner.

In recent months, stories about anti-vaxxers who’ve gotten sick with the coronavirus keep popping up — stories often ending with deathbed pleas for other people to get vaccinated.

Fervent anti-vaxx sentiment has boiled over from several people and places: concerned parents, multiple state GOP leaders, networks like Fox News and NewsMax, and celebrities like Tom Hanks’ rapper son Chet Hanks and rocker Eric Clapton. Conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson’s false claims about the vaccines include a totally false claim that the CDC said vaccines don’t work and that the government is forcing people to get vaccinated.

While barriers to vaccine access exist for some who do want to get their shots, specifically among people of color, animus toward those who do have access and don’t take the opportunity builds. “Compassion fatigue” has set in as the unvaccinated fill hospitals and now account for nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

Reasons for vaccine refusal — different from “hesitancy” — include politicization, sometimes confusing information from health organizations, and not wanting to take non-FDA approved medications. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was just fully approved by the FDA, which has sparked hope that hesitant holdouts will now get the shot.

But for many Americans, patience has already worn thin.

No more empathy

Lost empathy are now the highlight of many recent editorials and discussion boards online.

Those sentiments include:

“With all the data and firsthand accounts of what happens when people don’t get the vaccine is ignored or be written off as “lies,” maybe you deserve what happens to you. I have no more empathy.”

“Not sure I can read any more “X was unvaxxed and got Covid, here’s what happened” stories — who is this story for?”

“…We are tired. And OUT of empathy for the unvaccinated. OUT.”

“I just don’t know if I care much anymore if unvaccinated people pass away and that’s sad, very sad.”

But as many vaccinated people across the globe reckon with the feelings of having done what they were supposed to do and having that work, others urge not to give up on those who have not.

Can having more empathy help?

In an August 10 blog post, journalist Will Leitch disparaged ambivalence or schadenfreude for the unvaccinated, calling the scorn “self-righteous” and “nasty justice.” Leitch writes:

“But the idea that the unvaccinated sick somehow deserve an extra level of scorn, even that we should be refusing them medical care out of some sort of performative, cruel make-them-learn-their-lesson exercise, is monstrous and inhuman.

Will Leitch, writer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that listening and using patience are more constructive ways of discussing the safety of vaccines with loved ones — and rather than trying to prove them wrong, helping them find a “right” reason to get vaccinated.

Unkind attitudes and claims of “karma” from the vaccinated aren’t helpful, either, experts say.

So what is helpful?

North Carolina State University professor Stacy Wood, who’s studied COVID-19 vaccination promotion, has a few ideas. Wood recently explained in The Washington Post that meeting people where they are is key. In order to help change someone’s mind about the vaccine, you need to understand why they’re so opposed to it to begin with, Wood said. Integral to the conversation is refraining from assumptions about their beliefs or intelligence.

If a loved one’s vaccine refusal is tied to political ideologies, Wood says point them to people who share that political identity who has gotten vaccinated. She recommends telling them, “Here’s someone you really respect… and they say you should do it.”

All-in-all, experts recommend keeping discussions as mild as possible, while also approaching from a place of care and concern.

“You have to keep saying over and over again how much the person means to you,” said Wood.

But what about enraged vaccinated people?

Choire Sicha explains in her recent New York Magazine editorial, that inquiry can be key for helping the vaccinated over current hurdles. Sicha asks: “What if it turns out that you’re just sad and you were never willing to admit it?”

When dealing with anger, psychological experts say to look below the surface at what you’re really feeling, known as “The Anger Iceberg.” Anger can often mask fear or else, be an attempt to exercise control when feeling out of control.

“I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”

Last month, one Alabama doctor explained the tragedy she’s seeing before COVID-19 deaths among the unvaccinated — especially younger people. In the now-viral Facebook post, Dr. Brytney Cobia, of Grandview Medical Center, explained:

“One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late. A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same.”

Dr. Brytney Cobia via Facebook

Cobia said that often people’s reason not to get vaccinated because they didn’t think they were susceptible, thought the virus was “just like the flu,” or thought it was a political hoax.

“But they were wrong,” said Cobia. “And they wish they could go back. But they can’t.”

Nationally, there have been 636,491 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker shows. More than 90,000 patients are in the hospital with COVID-19-related illness as of Friday.

Follow KXAN’s Russell Falcon on Twitter @RussellFalcon or email russell.falcon@kxan.com for comments, questions and more coronavirus coverage.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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