The COVID-19 anti-vaccination double standard

Acknowledging the extreme frustration of those of us who are fed up with COVID-19 denial and vaccine refusal, Paul Waldman urges empathy for those he believes to be honestly misinformed:[1]

So the next time you hear a story about another anti-vax right-wing radio host or televangelist who died from covid, rather than chuckling, think of those they put at risk, the gullible or distracted people more likely to become infected because of them, and the ripples of loss spreading from them.[2]

To say I’m skeptical would attribute me entirely too much generosity and I believe that this is a generosity that, with overwhelmed hospitals and burned out medical staff, we cannot afford.[3] COVID-19 and information around it do not exist in a theoretical ethical isolation.

Whether we regard some or any of this as innocent, the harm is real: People are dying even from non-COVID-19 related causes because they cannot access medical care in overwhelmed hospitals that are losing staff to a burnout directly caused by a nearly two-year old pandemic that can only be further prolonged by vaccine refusal and that is compounded by the verbal and physical abuse that staff are receiving. Not only can this situation not be sustained, but the longer it goes on, the less capacity we have to handle it.[4] Waldman acknowledges and there can be no denying that some of this is malicious.[5]

The question here is of what Waldman calls “gullible or distracted people.”[6]

Suppose I am two degrees to the wind drunk out of my mind. I honestly believe I can safely get behind the wheel and drive home or, better yet, to the next bar. I collide with a school bus packed with kids in a tunnel. The bus catches fire and kids are trapped. Some die.

No one would deny the “ripples of loss” in such a case. Parents, relatives, and friends would mourn the lost children. Some survivors might be traumatized.

No one would excuse me from culpability. No judge would excuse me for my “misinformation.” I would not be exonerated on the grounds of gullibility or distraction. This would not happen.

As an adult, I am responsible for my actions, I am accountable for my judgment, and I am accountable for my decisions. What I think I know is not even remotely relevant.

But vaccine-refusal is worse than that. It occurs in a context where Donald Trump’s often white supremacist supporters say “fuck your feelings,” say “make a liberal cry,” and revel in any opportunity to “own the libs.” People who choose their information over that of medical authorities are choosing hate. They are in fact and inescapably acting out of malice.

And given the magnitude of the pandemic—over 800,000 in the U.S. have died[7]—and given that we’ve all been through lockdowns and mask mandates, one might reasonably wonder just what the hell it takes to get the attention of those who claim to have been “distracted.” Perhaps in my hypothetical, I could claim to have been “too busy” to pay any attention to the deleterious effects of alcohol but somehow managed to correctly guess just barely enough of the answers to those questions on a driving test however many decades ago.

Yet Waldman would not hold vaccine-refusers responsible for their refusal, not hold them accountable for their judgment, nor hold them accountable for their decisions. He would excuse them on grounds of gullibility or distraction. Even though actually innocent people are dying.

Sorry, I just don’t get that.

  1. [1]Paul Waldman, “The red covid wave is here,” Washington Post, December 17, 2021,
  2. [2]Paul Waldman, “The red covid wave is here,” Washington Post, December 17, 2021,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “What we owe anti-vaxxers in a life-threatening pandemic,” Not Housebroken, December 18, 2021,
  4. [4]Brianna Abbott, “Covid-19 Rise, Vaccine Hesitancy Frustrate Doctors in Hospitals Saturated by the Delta Variant,” Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2021,; Rebecca Boone, “COVID-19 surge forces health care rationing in parts of West,” ABC News, September 16, 2021,; Hailey Branson-Potts, “Mortuaries fill, hospitals clog in rural California towns with low vaccination rates,“ Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2021,; Jenny Deam, “A Boy Went to a COVID-Swamped ER. He Waited for Hours. Then His Appendix Burst,” ProPublica, September 15, 2021,; Dan Diamond, Hannah Knowles, and Tyler Pager, “Vaccine hesitancy morphs into hostility, as opposition to shots hardens,” Washington Post, July 15, 2021,; Dan Diamond and Tyler Pager, “‘Patience has worn thin’: Frustration mounts over vaccine holdouts,” Washington Post, July 23, 2021,; Melanie Evans and Julie Wernau, “Unvaccinated Americans Are Behind Rising Covid-19 Hospitalizations,” Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2021,; Marisa Fernandez, “As hospitals fill, more ambulances forced to wait,” Axios, August 27, 2021,; Sarah Gantz and Stacey Burling, “Pa. hospitals are really busy. They beg you to get your flu and COVID-19 vaccines,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 10, 2021,; Michael M. Grynbaum, Tiffany Hsu, and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “On Fox News, Vaccination Pleas Intensify, but Skepticism Persists,” New York Times, July 20, 2021,; Megan Guza, “Covid-driven hospital surge ‘not a sustainable situation’ in Western Pa., expert says,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 9, 2021,; Chico Harlan, “Highly vaccinated countries thought they were over the worst. Denmark says the pandemic’s toughest month is just beginning,” Washington Post, December 18, 2021,; Michael Hiltzik, “‘Death panels’ arrive — in COVID-stricken Republican Idaho,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2021,; Jeff Himler, “Covid cases create ‘desperate’ situation at Westmoreland hospitals,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 14, 2021,; Courtney Ann Jackson, “Mississippi doctors still urging folks to get vaccinated as Delta variant becomes dominant COVID strain,” WLBT, July 5, 2021,; Peter Jamison, “Their neighbors called covid-19 a hoax. Can these ICU nurses forgive them?” Washington Post, July 6, 2021,; Christina Baker Kline, “My father should be in surgery rehab. But with beds full of the unvaccinated, he died in covid quarantine,” Washington Post, September 29, 2021,; Hannah Knowles and Caroline Anders, “Hospital system says it will deny transplants to the unvaccinated in ‘almost all situations,’” Washington Post, October 6, 2021,; Oliver Laughland and Jessica Glenza, “Inside a Tennessee hospital grappling with Delta and vaccine hesitancy,” Guardian, July 24, 2021,; Natasha Lindstrom, “Out-of-state covid hot spots ‘desperate’ to transfer patients to Western Pa. hospitals,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 12, 2021,; Katie MacBride, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, August 21, 2021,; Michael McGough, “Sacramento hospitals ‘at capacity’ and COVID deaths at 6-month high as delta spreads,” Sacramento Bee, August 26, 2021,; Luke Money, “ICU beds filling up in San Joaquin Valley, triggering hospital surge order,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2021,; Tawnya Panizzi, Renatta Signorini, and Natasha Lindstrom, “‘You can’t fix it with facts’: Doctors share patients’ excuses for covid vaccine refusal,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 17, 2021,; Betsy Phillips, “I was supposed to have life-saving surgery. Tennessee’s covid-19 surge cost me a hospital bed,” Washington Post, September 14, 2021,; Michael Rubinkam, “COVID surge: Pennsylvania hospital chain runs out of beds,” Associated Press, December 8, 2021,; Jim Salter, “COVID-related attacks prompt hospital to issue panic buttons,” Associated Press, September 28, 2021,; Sudhin Thanawala and Jay Reeves, “Virus surge breaks hospital records amid rising toll on kids,” Sacramento Bee, August 26, 2021,; Ed White, “Hits ‘keep coming’: Hospitals struggle as COVID beds fill,” Associated Press, December 18, 2021,; Paige Williams, “Mississippi’s Hospital System Is Rapidly Approaching Statewide Failure,” New Yorker, August 17, 2021,
  5. [5]Paul Waldman, “The red covid wave is here,” Washington Post, December 17, 2021,
  6. [6]Paul Waldman, “The red covid wave is here,” Washington Post, December 17, 2021,
  7. [7]Heather Hollingsworth, “US COVID death toll hits 800,000, a year into vaccine drive,” Associated Press, December 15, 2021,