COVID has turned everyday life into a social minefield. The people responsible for the breakdown aren't always who you expect. The people most impacted are depressingly familiar.
The 4,000-plus people who gathered at Riverfront Park last Saturday for an anti-mask-and-vaccine-mandate “Rally for Medical Freedom” marched with signs that had messages like “Don’t Drink the Cool-Aid [sic],” “My Body My Choice #freedom,” and “Coercion is not Consent.” They wore racially problematic shirts like “Be Brave or Be a Slave” and “Unvaccinated Lives Matter.”
They listened to Matt Shea — the former state legislator accused of domestic terror by his own Republican colleagues — speak about freedom. Shea encouraged attendees to be fired from their jobs rather than accept mandated COVID shots.
A rally participant who claimed to be a nurse grabbed KREM 2 reporter Morgan Trau’s N95 mask and told her masks don’t work, accosting the journalist until Trau’s security stepped in. The previous day, while covering a contentious Coeur d’Alene school board meeting protest, Trau was shouted down by an angry mob of 200 anti-mask-mandate parents. At least one protestor, irate at THE MEDIA — a monolith that encompasses everything from The New York Times to local TV stations, and which symbolizes deep-state complicity — and its COVID coverage, followed the reporter to her car.
The school board eventually cancelled the meeting due to safety concerns.
School board meeting derailments have become a national trend, and some of the most prominent and troubling examples have happened in the Inland Northwest. In Walla Walla last week, both the school board and city council meetings were halted due to anti-maskers. In late August, similar disruptions shut down meetings at Spokane Public Schools, at Spokane’s Central Valley and in Wenatchee a week later. The Wenatchee district has moved meetings online, citing a “credible threat” to its members.
In a truly unique case, the publicly elected Board of Regents at North Idaho College fired NIC’s President without cause, partially because of a mask mandate he had tried to institute. The board’s conservatism covers a gamut of recent reactionary talking points — including vague concerns about Critical Race Theory — and this wasn’t the first open confrontation. Ultimately, though, when the hammer fell, it was over the politics of the pandemic.
Those of us who accept the protections that masks and vaccines provide have likely encountered people like this in our daily lives. A veterinary technician told me her job now includes being screamed at and cussed out by (human) clients when she asks them to mask up. I’ve seen a home-Sharpied yard sign declaring I WILL NOT be vaccinated! Come try it!! Trucks and SUVs cruise around town with window decals like F*ck Inslee and endless variations on the theme of mask users being sheep and sheeple.
But I’ve also heard people say thank you for doing this to venues in Spokane that check vaccination status and actually enforce wearing masks.
A guy at the grocery store said to me, “Why don’t you worry about yourself?!” after I startled at his maskless mouth breathing on someone’s future broccoli. There are shops I’ve stopped frequenting because they don’t care about masks. Yet I sympathize with the staff’s hesitation to confront patrons. Friends of mine have spotted maskless men in stores open-carrying firearms. In what world would we imagine asking a front-line employee to confront a man with a gun on his hip about the mask he is very intentionally not wearing?
The protests are so loud that the voices can seem ubiquitous — overwhelming even — but their numbers are shrinking, especially as Washington state approaches vaccine mandate deadlines for about 63,000 workers. By Oct. 4, employees in sectors affected by the mandate will require at least one shot. Full vaccination is due by Oct. 18.
Spurred by these deadlines — and also, it seems, simply by the threat of delta itself — Washington saw a 20% rise in vaccinations since the start of September. As of Sept. 27, 76.4% of WA residents ages 12+ have received at least one dose, while 69.7% (nice!) are fully vaccinated.
Yet in Spokane, vaccine counts are a full 20 percentage points lower.
There has always been a political valence to this pandemic. It has never been just about the science of virology. But we’ve been soaking in that soup for 18 months now, enough time for it to reduce and distill down to a thick social stew of entrenched, increasingly frayed emotions.
A trip to the grocery store might be uneventful, or it might spark a showdown. That’s a tense backdrop to live with daily.
Those who feel victimized by health mandates have been equating inconvenience with genuine oppression. Aggrieved citizens, considering mask-and-vax mandates to be governmental tyranny, compare mandates to the Holocaust. A Newberg, Oregon elementary school teacher showed up to work in blackface, claiming she was portraying Rosa Parks to protest mandatory staff vaccinations. Awful stuff.
In an incredible feat of timing, Australian psychologist and UBC professor Steven Taylor published The Psychology of Pandemics in fall of 2019. The book is based on research into historic pandemics like the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 (Spanish flu).
The behaviors, attitudes, and responses he found in those past tragedies predicted what we’ve been experiencing for nearly two years, including “panic buying, racism and protests against pandemic mitigation restrictions.”
Taylor lays out key psychological phenomena at play in a pandemic, such as:
Knee-jerk pushback against public health guidelines or, according to Taylor, any “attempts at persuasion that are perceived as threatening one’s autonomy and freedom of choice.” Taylor says this “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me kind of response” is most common in cultures that place supreme value on individualism and personal freedom. (Welp!)
When faced with a crisis too overwhelming to process (similar to climate change, stay tuned for the next episode of our podcast) some people downplay the risks and severity of the situation, instead assuring themselves things aren’t that bad and will naturally improve — despite evidence to the contrary.
Taylor warns that, “the harder you try to push and persuade these psychologically reactive people, the more they are likely to push back because they perceive their freedoms are being threatened. While they may be a minority, they are also highly vocal, and so we see many different types of people joining in.”
Political affiliation (specifically, how a person voted in the 2020 U.S. election) is currently one of the most reliable tells of vaccination status. More densely conservative areas are uniformly in worse shape than places with a higher concentration of anything left of moderate. That’s certainly evident in rural Eastern Washington and North Idaho, but it’s not the whole story.
An August Pew Research poll found “86% of Democratic voters had received at least one shot, compared with 60% of Republican voters.” However, there are plenty of “progressive” anti-maskers, and a super-majority of Republican voters have gotten at least their first jab. It would be a mistake to link mask and vaccine reluctance solely to party affiliation.
Some “wellness influencers” and New Age spiritualists subscribe to and spread anti-vaccine conspiracies. So are concerned parents susceptible to disinformation.
Even among the MAGA set, loyalties aren’t static: In late August, at a rally in Alabama, a crowd booed and heckled Donald Trump after he encouraged people to get vaccinated. While the former President certainly harnessed those with libertarian leanings and openness to conspiracies, it was always a wave he was riding. It was never a ship he steered. And now that reactionary “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me” energy is far out of his control.
It’s also crucial to remember: Not everyone who’s unvaccinated is anti-vaccine. There are issues of age, eligibility, and access. San Francisco pediatrician and public health expert Rhea Boyd told The Atlantic:
[Much of] our paid workforce doesn’t have flexibility about hours, or couldn’t take a day off if they wanted to. And if you don’t have paid sick leave to deal with the vaccine or the potential side effects of the second dose, you’ll skip it because feeding your family is more important right now. Child care is also an enormous issue.”
In Washington state as a whole, COVID hospitalization and cases are dropping, but the Inland Northwest is still in crisis. Spokane and North Idaho’s low vaccination rates mean area hospitals are still full. On Sept. 7, Idaho hospitals activated crisis standards of care guidelines — as in, healthcare rationing.
About 2,000 surgeries and procedures in Spokane’s Providence hospitals have been postponed because of high COVID hospitalizations (95-98% of those COVID patients are unvaccinated). Providence Spokane’s chief medical officer Dr. Dan Getz says, “While we’ve seen a plateau, we’re still above last winter surge and we don’t know when we’ll return to a volume we are comfortable with.”
The human species has overcome pandemics before, despite anti-mask leagues and medical misinformation dating back centuries. With COVID though, the backlash has reached a new volume and pitch, in part because of the speed with which information travels. Compared to our nonstop news cycle and lightning-like social media, attempts to control misinformation — like YouTube’s decision to block anti-vaxx content comes a full 18 months after the U.S. declared the pandemic a state of emergency — seem comically slow.
Society will get through this pandemic too. But not everyone will be affected equally. “Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Americans have suffered far worse than white ones during the pandemic,” writes Hayley Phelan in that Harper’s Bazaar piece about anti-vaxxers in the wellness movement.
And so, while the factors, ideologies, and backgrounds propelling vaccine and mask skepticism are too varied to responsibly lump into a single cultural or political strain, the hardest hit victims are depressingly familiar: it’s the already vulnerable, people suffering from racial and class oppression, and those dragged under in the churn of widening inequality.
— edited by Luke Baumgarten