COVID response: Be kind, but push for courage

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

People on the political right are fond of repeating Ben Shapiro’s line, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” We do so because it is often true: The facts of the physical world are unaffected by how we feel about them. Reality is what it is. It’s a fair rejoinder to utopian plans that are hopelessly out of sync with reality.

But society is not a purely factual construct. How we relate to each other — and especially how we treat those with whom we disagree — is affected by feelings and is an important part of building trust in a community. Facts may not care about your feelings, but man does not live by facts alone.

The battle of opinions over COVID lockdowns, mandates, and vaccines has been a major divide in our city and in society at large. How we have handled the arguments has not always reflected the best part of our nature. Every political disagreement is now viewed through the lens of the culture war and we often feel like two rival tribes uneasily inhabiting the same country.

Living together in a nation as big and diverse as ours requires tolerance and even compassion for those whom we fervently believe are wrong. When the pandemic began, experts in Washington and Harrisburg urged us to “follow the science” (as though “the science” dictated a single answer) and to obey the increasingly draconian measures imposed by decree by the nation’s governors and bureaucrats. 

“Two weeks to flatten the curve” turned into a year of misery.

Then the vaccines came, and we were finally going to be free. “The science” gave us a way to live again. But not so fast: while a majority wanted to get vaxxed and get out there again, the experts urged ever more caution, even for the vaccinated. Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to “shut down the virus,” not the country, yet the threat of more lockdowns looms. Even now, the CDC and local governments talk of rolling back the freedoms they had allowed us to reclaim. The “Delta surge” sounds like the next excuse to lock us down, but its effect on the vaccinated is no greater than that of any other variant.

Some of this is disagreement on facts, but most of it is disagreement on feelings, a difference in risk tolerance and understanding of large numbers. As Anthony Hennen wrote in this space last week: “Vaccines work. Masks aren’t necessary if you’re vaccinated.” 

So what can we make of those on the left — those who once called lockdown opponents “science-deniers” — who now deny science themselves in insisting that the vaccinated continue to take absurd precautions against a virus to which they are almost completely immune? Should we not attack them as viciously as they attacked us?

The rebuke would be well-earned, but as good as it might feel in the moment, it would not help anything or make life in the city better.

What if, this once, we choose not to “own the libs”? What if, instead, we try to understand our tremulous neighbors and try to convince rather than to assail?

I’ve lived around here my whole life, and I know full well that part of being a Philadelphian is telling it like it is, not taking a lot of crap from anybody. But a part of it also is true neighborliness. That means treating people we encounter like members of a real community, not adversaries on a Facebook page. “Brotherly love” means just what it sounds like — you love your siblings, even when all their opinions are bad.

I personally can’t wait to throw away all of the dubiously effective cloth masks I own and breathe free air 24/7. But let’s consider the trauma of the past year when we confront those who don’t feel the same way. There is some low-grade PTSD floating around the city caused by fear of the virus. That threat may have been overblown in some of the more hysterical media reporting, but COVID is real and it had a mental effect on people. Folks who spent the last year-and-a-half being afraid will have a hard time snapping out of it and back into regular life. Many will hold on to masks as though they were magic amulets, a source of comfort if not of actual protection.

On the other side are those who see the infinitesimal risk of vaccination as equal to or greater than the much greater risk of contracting COVID. Study after study shows that getting vaxxed saves lives and that, even if no vaccine is 100% effective, one’s risk of serious infection is drastically reduced through vaccination. But mistrust of authority (somewhat understandable given the CDC’s mismanagement of the crisis) and conspiratorial thinking lead many to refuse to take the simple step that would lead to herd immunity and an end to all of this.

We should not let either of these fears rule our city. We shouldn’t shame people who are scared, but we should encourage them to be brave. It may seem absurd to treat irrational fear like it is based in reality, but we’re not going to win over the fearful except by treating them with kindness and respect. 

Be kind, but push for courage. The pandemic is on its way out; let’s take the opportunity to renew the ties of friendship that the lockdowns frayed.

  • Kyle Sammin is the senior editor of the Philadelphia Weekly. He is also a senior contributor to The Federalist and the co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast. Follow him on Twitter @kylesammin.

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