Commentary: Death is more of a threat to liberty than masks or vaccines

click to enlarge A surgical nurse prepares a COVID-19 patient for a procedure in an intensive care unit. - Wikimedia Commons / US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman
Wikimedia Commons / US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman
A surgical nurse prepares a COVID-19 patient for a procedure in an intensive care unit.
"As you know, many of our fellow citizens and public officeholders are bound and determined that government is no damn good. It may be that government is no damn good, but then neither is the alternative. Of course we live in a hopelessly regulated society. When you come to a stop sign, you got to stop. You want to go fishing, you got to get a license. You want to go shoot ducks, you can only shoot three ducks. On the whole, it's better than a lot of dead bodies at the intersection, no fish and no ducks. Government is not taking away your freedom, it's inconveniencing you. This is not tyranny, it's a pain in the ass." — Molly Ivins, 1995.

On July 7, I made a good healthcare decision. Rather than continuing to double-stack Extra Strength Tylenol to hold down a high fever, I went to see a doctor at University Health ExpressMed clinic. In less than five minutes, I was shooed into the Emergency Room. The diagnosis came back as sepsis caused by murine typhus, and after several-less-than comfortable days in a hospital bed, half-buried under ice packs, the antibiotics worked their science.

My case was so classic I even signed a release for it to appear in textbooks and medical journals. All this to say, I consider myself lucky to have witnessed firsthand the competence, good humor and stoic fortitude of San Antonio's doctors and nurses.

I'm also lucky coronavirus cases were low at the time.

Today, however, Bexar County is averaging well over a thousand new infections daily with 1,400 people currently hospitalized. We're in the middle of yet another surge that's straining our capacity to provide adequate care for COVID and non-COVID patients alike. And adding injury to injury, the spike was likely preventable — had more of us simply availed ourselves of the vaccines.

The now-dominant delta variant makes the current strain of COVID among the most contagious respiratory illnesses known to mankind. Even those who have been fully vaccinated should mask up with N95s and take precautions, since breakthrough cases are occurring.

Although I hope Gov. Greg Abbott had a speedy recovery, his efforts to tie the hands of local public health officials have already cost lives. In lieu of leadership and solidarity, he's given us partisanship and court battles. Beyond basic masking requirements in public schools, two out of three Texans support vaccine mandates. But Abbott has put the anti-scientific whines of an ill-informed, unhinged minority of government-phobic jerks above the safety of the 29 million residents of this state.  

Who are these supposed freedom lovers Abbott has bowed before? It turns out the pandemic-downplayer and anti-vaxxer clown car holds a tiresome cast of characters.

First are the Invincibles, who fancy themselves genetically endowed with the immune system of Wolverine. They revel in their inalienable right to facial nakedness. On the plus side, some recommend a healthy diet, good night's sleep, exercise and sunshine to keep the virus at bay — all commendable lifestyle choices, but no substitute for the best solution to quelling a pandemic that can fell even the young and healthy. They cite misleading statistics such as "78% of those hospitalized for COVID are overweight." That figure sounds significant until one realizes what percentage of American adults are classified as overweight by the CDC. It's 74%.

The psychological defense mechanism at work with the Invincibles is obvious: "If this is all somebody else's problem, I can go on with business as usual, worry-free!"

Ironically, these rugged individualists confuse vigilance with panic and conscientiousness with scaremongering. There's no strength in denying reality. The Social Darwinists among the Invincibles argue that if you succumb to the disease they insist is "just another flu" — which we've known for 18 months is a ludicrous comparison — then you're too old or overweight or weak, and you were probably going to keel over soon anyway.

After all, "The survival rate for COVID is 99%," they mindlessly repeat. That statistic, of course, ignores the many other solid reasons one would want to avoid contracting COVID. Among those are the potential for permanent damage to the heart and lungs, "long COVID" symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog, the disquieting loss of taste and smell and infecting someone other than yourself.

Conceding a 99% survival rate, how many Americans would we lose if everybody caught this? A measly 3.3 million souls. Hardly worth closing gyms over, according to the Invincibles.

But the Invincibles aren't the only ones refusing to roll up their sleeves. There are also the Conspiracists.

On August 13, an intrepid protester asked an editor of the San Antonio Report covering an anti-mask rally, "Do you realize the mask you're wearing was made in China and probably has an engineered bioweapon embedded in it?"

Well, that's a new one, I must admit: donning a mask violates the Geneva Protocols. Like much spouting from the geysers of misinformation these days, it falls somewhere between being too outlandish to take seriously and too original to find a fact-check for.

Having said that, the Conspiracists can recite a litany of real 20th century medical crimes: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Thalidomide, radioactive kids' cereal, forced sterilizations. And they have a point. Even today, disturbing reports continue to document Big Pharma's role in the opioid crisis.

However, while we all struggle to navigate the unsafe products, unclean environments and rotten bureaucracies of late capitalism, when I cut my finger, I still slap a Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid on it.

For some, though, believing George Soros or Bill Gates or the Communist Party of China concocted a "scamdemic" may actually be more comforting than acknowledging the fact that a single strand of RNA some 0.125 microns in size can bring global civilization to a halt.

As long as the Conspiracists feel they're wise to some Big Lie the rest of us "sheeple" can't see, as long as a hidden cabal pulls the strings behind the scenes, then it shows that somebody's in charge. There's order in the universe. And, naturally, the Conspiracist is on the side of the enlightened good guys able to "see through the media."

But, in reality, the actual conspiracies are out in the open for all to witness: Pfizer and Moderna together forecasted more than $50 billion in profit from vaccines this year, yet as of now, fewer than 1 in 4 people on the planet have been fully vaccinated.

"The longer we allow the pandemic to go on essentially unchecked in many parts of the world, the more we face risks that a variant will emerge that will completely evade the vaccines that we have and set us all back square one," Richard Hatchet, head of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, presciently warned this summer.

Americans are blessed to live in one of the wealthiest parts of the globe and have free access to high-quality vaccines. However, far too many of our fellow spoiled brats in first class are spreading baseless rumors about the lifeboats while those trapped on the lower decks go down with the sinking ship.

And then there's the final group holding back our ability to contain this crisis, the Procrastinators. These folks contend they don't have all the relevant information to make an informed decision about vaccination. Maybe now that official FDA approval has arrived some will come around. Or maybe in a few years, or maybe never.

One of the tactics the FBI used when infiltrating and disrupting activist groups during COINTELPRO projects of the '50s through the '70s was to instruct its moles to reopen previously settled discussions and endlessly delay decisive action under the pretense of "just asking questions" or "just wanting to talk it out more."

It amounted to obstructive trolling — a description that fit then and especially fits now.

However genuine the Procrastonators' questions are, we're past that point. There's enough information out there for everyone to have reached a rational judgment. A deadly disease is spreading, but we have safe and effective tools to manage it. Don't listen to anyone who tells you the vaccines are "experimental," they're now standard-of-care, and researchers have been developing mRNA technology since the early 1990s.

More than 180 million Americans have received at least one dose and not a single death — not one — has been attributed to the mRNA vaccines. “I dare say, I wish that Aspirin could be as safe,” quipped epidemiologist Michael Osterholm.

When asked why his patients in intensive care didn't get vaccinated, Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer for Parkland Health in Dallas, said that most confided, "I just didn't think it would be me."

That's why procrastination is the worst option: it just might be you. Your children. Your grandparents. Take it from me, the vaccine is free, but stays at the hospital? Not so much. The bill for mine was $40,745. Still, it was better than the alternative.

The most final threat to liberty is disease and death. And if a pocket of quiet should strike you, give a thought to all those anxiously looking up at a hospital ceiling, their chests hooked up to wires, nose-to-nose with the possibility of death. Also give a thought to the overstressed hospital workers devoted to returning them back to their families, safe and sound.

Is your convenience really worth more than their freedom to breathe?

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