I thought COVID-19 anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers were a unique phenomenon of American stupidity, but having just returned from a two-week trip to England, I fear that the reckless response to a virus that has killed almost 5 million people worldwide is not an American thing — it’s a human thing.
Many of us who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and who have committed to the discomfort of wearing masks in indoor public places, have spent the better part of a year fuming at the estimated 93 million Americans who are eligible to receive the vaccine but refuse it — and the people who ignore mask requirements and walk through indoor public spaces with their mask hanging off one ear.
I figured this callous disregard for the safety of others had its genesis in the wave of anti-science paranoia that was stoked by our 45th president, but I witnessed the same wanton negligence an ocean away.
When the United Kingdom finally lifted its quarantine requirements for vaccinated American visitors in August, I quickly planned a trip to visit my partner, a Brit, whom I had not seen for 20 months.
I knew that Prime Minister Boris JohnsonBoris JohnsonBritish minister warns against 'snogging under the mistletoe' this year The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden to announce increased measures for omicron UK lawmakers say plan to block migrants will endanger lives MORE had lifted virtually all vaccination and mask requirements to access public places, but I was confident that British common sense and courtesy would prevail. Boy, was I wrong.
London’s Heathrow Airport was filled with people arriving from all corners of the globe — and many, including airport workers, were not wearing masks. The train from Heathrow into London was packed with mostly unmasked passengers. One person three feet away from me appeared to be coughing up a lung.
The maskless were men in paint-splattered pants, heading to work. They were mothers with children. They were teens riding the trains to school. And they were the British posh in cashmere coats.
The streets, restaurants, stores, and theaters were jammed; I estimate about 80 percent were not wearing masks. They were shopping, dining, and watching plays like it was 2019.
I began to ask why.
Many told me that if it was medically necessary to wear a mask, the government would mandate it. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their government had let them down for perceived political gain.
On vaccines, while the United Kingdom has vaccinated about 67 percent of their population, 22 million are still available for the virus to infect, sicken, and use as a host to mutate into a version that evades the protection of inoculation.
The reason so many are refusing a free lifesaving vaccine? I expected something more sophisticated from British anti-vaxxers, but it was the same junk that is circulating in the U.S.: ‘The vaccine has not been tested enough; it can mess up your DNA; COVID is like a cold, so why take the risk with a vaccine?’
It’s not just anti-science parents who raised anti-science kids who are to blame for the vaccine “hesitancy” that fueled the recent U.K. average of 40,000 new COVID-19 cases per day. A member of the hotel staff told me she got vaccinated as soon as it was available, but her 17-year-old son has refused.
Her son argues he’s made it this long without catching COVID, so there’s no reason to get vaccinated now. She’s at her wit’s end. I sent her an article about a 20-year-old in North Carolina who refused his mother’s pleas to get vaccinated and recently died. She said the article made her son double down in his resolve to not get vaccinated.
While doing laundry at the hotel, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Singapore who was visiting London. She told me that despite 80 percent of Singapore’s population being vaccinated, cases are surging. The frustration and anger in her voice was palpable as she explained that most of the people refusing the vaccine are the elderly — who are susceptible to conspiracy theory misinformation about the vaccine’s safety. They are getting infected, spreading the virus, and dying.
When Britain’s COVID restrictions were lifted in July, London’s theater district reopened. My partner and I went to see an amazing revival of “The Normal Heart,” a 1985 play about an AIDS activist who spent years desperately screaming at gay men to change their behavior in order to save themselves from the deadly disease. I lived through those years, and at some point I made the conscious decision to stop counting the number of people I knew who died because they chose their sexual freedom over their lives.
I could not help but be struck by the parallel to the COVID pandemic. From masks to vaccines, people are taking a misguided stand for “freedom” — and losing their lives in the process.
A play about one pandemic was being performed to an audience in the throes of another. The audience — standing shoulder-to-shoulder, many without masks — offered a standing ovation for a play that shined a spotlight on deadly self-destruction. The irony was damning.
Sadly, pandemic denial is nothing new: Cholera in 1832, the “Spanish flu” in 1918, and smallpox for centuries until vaccination eradicated it in 1980, all brought denial and protest against public safety measures from segments of a global citizenry. Nicolas Guilhot, a professor of intellectual history at the European University Institute in Italy, has commented that pandemics prompt the spread of misinformation as “attempts to cope” with a frightening uncertainty.
Being immersed in another country’s response to COVID, far from my daily diet of internet conspiracy theories, I was left with two thoughts. First, we must formally recognize a new law of nature: Social media makes everything worse. Second, American COVID crazies are not alone. COVID idiocy is a human condition that has claimed the minds of a sizable global population.
I used to think that the medical experts were using scare tactics when they predicted how bad things would get if we did not find the collective will to mask and vaccinate. Tragically the 4.9 million deaths worldwide from COVID, proves they were right.
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.