Opinion | The Limits of My Empathy for Covid-Deniers


By Tressie McMillan Cottom

Opinion Writer

I recently drove by an anti-vaccine rally just outside of Winston-Salem, N.C. It was not very populated. There were maybe a half-dozen people with signs and more onlookers than protesters. Drivers honked their car horns, whether in solidarity or disgust I could not tell.

Some of these protests are larger. In Oregon last month, approximately 2000 people showed up in that state’s Capitol to protest mask mandates and vaccine requirements. On top of the organized protests across the country, there are the everyday protests in stores and public places where people refuse to abide by mask policies.

I live in the South, a region too often mischaracterized as exceptionally backward on science and public responsibility. But you can look around the world’s most urbane cities in recent weeks and see similar backlashes to common-sense Covid precautions: London, Paris, New York City.

Social media and news reports are full of stories about Covid deniers dying in hospitals. Many of those stories seem to be in good faith. It is as if they are trying to force us to marshal empathy for people who were led astray by nefarious disinformation campaigns to their own peril. The stories have all the makings of an emotional “feel good” cinematic morality play. The dying are humanized through their social roles — a dad, a mom, a veteran — all wishing in their final hours that they had done something differently.

Like many people, I am finding it hard to muster the empathy these stories try to elicit because other images are so fresh in my mind. The maskless rallies, the red-faced anti-maskers screaming at grocery store workers, the protesters hurling invectives at the schoolteachers who are begging for masks so that schoolchildren can return to school — those images fill me and crowd out my empathy.

I am not concerned about “death shaming,” or shaming those who die from Covid instead of persuading them to get vaccinated. Fear of being ostracized for engaging in risky behavior does not seem to be the reason that millions of people are rejecting the vaccine or masks. Shame may not motivate someone to get vaccinated but I do not have any sense that shame is preventing anyone from getting vaccinated.

No, I’m not concerned with shaming as much as I am concerned about what empathy does for me. I rely on empathy not to make me morally superior but to keep me tethered to what matters. Empathetic impulses give me the humility to keep asking questions, even when I do not like the answers. Because I value being a thinking person, I honor emotions like empathy, fear, joy and trust to guide me around the pitfalls of my ego. Ego makes for really sloppy analysis and writing. I am at a point where headlines about ill and dying Covid deniers do not pull at my empathy strings the way I want them to.

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