Having Ethical Questions around COVID Vaccinations? Let’s check in with NYT, WaPo, the Mayor, and the Dalai Lama.

On Monday, Wake County (NC) students on the traditional calendar went back to school. Like many city/suburban areas, the school board mandated masks for everyone inside school, despite some intense protests by some parents. Last week, my city, Cary (a town outside Raleigh, NC), also imposed a mask mandate within city buildings. That, too, has been controversial.

I believe I have mentioned this before, but I majored in philosophy in my undergraduate degree from The College of William and Mary. So I tend to look at these things from a larger philosophical perspective. I thought I would share some of the recent sources that have helped me develop my thinking around this difficult issue.

One note: I will be linking to articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I have subscriptions to both, but I don’t know if people who don’t have subscriptions can see these or not. I hope that you can. But if you can’t, I suggest you watch this 19 minute Journalism Clip from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on August 7, 2016 about why we need to be buying subscriptions to newspapers, which are still doing the bulk of checking up on what our elected officials are doing:

https://www.hbo.com/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver/2016/20-august-7-2016

Anyway, I have to admit that I have times when I feel like this editorial by The New York Times editorial writer, Paul Krugman on “The Rage of the Responsible” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/19/opinion/covid-masks-vaccine-mandates.html?searchResultPosition=). To me, the Responsible is not only those who have been vaccinated, but those who choose not to vaccinate for various reasons, but are therefore SUPER diligent about wearing masks, sanitizing, and staying at home as much as possible. Responsibility is not based necessarily on what decision we make about this or any issue, but our willingness to acknowledge our decision and act in a way that faces up to the potential outcomes, both good and bad, for ourselves AND for other people.

So who are the opposite…the so-called “Irresponsible”? Well, one gathering that comes to mind is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in Meade County, South Dakota this month. Hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists descended on the area this month without vaccination or masking requirements. According to CBS News, two weeks after the end of the rally, there has been a 456% increase in COVID cases as of August 25. Yes, the state went from 657 active cases on August 4 to 3,665 active actives on August 25, with an increase in positive COVID tests from 10.38% just before the rally to 38.8% the week after the rally. And who knows how many more cases are springing up from that event in other states.

To me, the biggest issue isn’t just the numbers, which are horrible, but the knowledge that I’m sure not all, maybe not even most of the positive cases are among the motorcyclists themselves. If adults choose to undertake risky behaviors that end up making them sick, well, that is the law of personal unintended consequences (that is, direct consequences of an action that the person did not mean to happen). But how many of the new COVID cases are the hotel personnel or waiters/waitresses or gas station attendants or other innocent people who were exposed to COVID though non voluntary contact with this massive super spreader event? It is those people that I particularly feel bad about from an ethical standpoint.

I’ve really been trying to understand the people who do things like that, like having a huge open motorcycle rally in the midst of a new surge of the pandemic. The New York Times also had this great opinion video that tried to explain why people refuse to get vaccinated. Entitled “Dying in the Name of Vaccine Freedom” by Alexander Stockton and Lucy King, it looks at some people’s belief in the American value of the individual right of choice as triumphing not only the general public health, but sometimes even their own health.

Do I agree that freedom of choice is a fundamental American value? Of course I do. Should people have the right to decide what goes into their bodies? Generally, I believe so. So personally, would I be in favor of a blanket vaccination mandate? No, I suppose I wouldn’t. What about companies requiring vaccinations of their employees? That seems permissible to me, especially in companies such as hospitals or senior living facilities where people are dealing with high risk customers, since employees could make the choice of leaving that job if it matters that much to them. How about the US military, which is requiring all personnel to get the vaccine? On one hand, that makes sense to me since much of the military works and lives in close quarters with high risks of transmission. Can people quit the military if they don’t like the policy? I’m not sure what the rules are these days in the all-volunteer military. I believe people still sign up for a specific tour of duty, but I suppose this might be a reason why their tour is terminated early? I haven’t found an answer to that question yet.

Another article in The Washington Post raised a different ethical question. If we get to the point of needing to ration health care around COVID, should vaccination status be a consideration in who gets priority? That is, if there is only one open bed in the ICU or only one ventilator, and there is both a patient who has been vaccinated and followed masking protocols and one who has not, should the vaccinated patient get the service over the unvaccinated one? That’s a knotty question. Read the opinion of a professor of ethics at Harvard’s School of Public Health at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/08/23/refuse-covid-treatment-unvaccinated-triage/

Closer to home, I’m moved by the weekly column in our local newspaper by my town’s mayor, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht. On August 9, he wrote about being targeted by an email campaign by an anti-vaccine protest group requesting him to do something to protect the rights of Cary citizen to refuse being vaccinated. Here is part of his response to those email:

Vaccine mandates are usually from the state and federal level not from the local level. Private businesses, like my employer SAS, are also requiring vaccinations. However, while the Town of Cary employees are not required to be vaccinated, they are required, as is everyone else, to wear masks inside town facilities. This will continue for the foreseeable future.

I strongly believe in the overwhelming data about vaccines. I was vaccinated at the first opportunity. I also believe that people claiming the right to not to be vaccinated is similar to claiming a right to drive drunk. That is, it is irresponsible, reckless, endangers themselves, endangers their families, and endangers others. On this point we will strongly disagree. I cannot support your request.

Then on August 16, the Mayor decided to impose a mask mandate for all indoor gatherings of unrelated people in buildings throughout the town of Cary. In his August 23 column, Weinbrecht related:

Initially, I was not going to do a mask mandate because I believe it should be statewide and I still do. The turning point for me was late in the week when I was sent a message by healthcare workers from our local hospital.

Here is what I was told: They were running out of ICU beds and ventilators. They had just intubated a 19-year-old. Almost all their COVID patients are unvaccinated. Those patients are much younger and much sicker. Their healthcare workers have been battling COVID for a year and a half.

They are exhausted, frustrated, angry, and demoralized especially since this wave was preventable. Nevertheless, they continue to take care of sick patients. They “begged” for the mayor to PLEASE do something. To institute a mask mandate for indoors.

This request (from our healthcare heroes) had a big impact on me. In addition, I knew that most of the unvaccinated in Cary are children who are not yet eligible for vaccinations.

I spent the weekend calling and talking to experts, other elected officials, and staff. I knew that if I instituted a mask mandate, I would face the wrath of the anti-vaccinators and the anti-mask people. I knew that with a mask mandate I would face the wrath of people that are tired of restrictions. I knew that with a mask mandate I would face the wrath of business owners.

My options were to ignore the pleas from the healthcare workers or make a LOT of people unhappy. It was a lose-lose choice. I chose the unpopular option of instituting a mask mandate. Even if it saves one life it would be worth all the nastiness and hatred I have received.

I agreed with the masking mandate, and emailed the Mayor to tell him so, knowing it was a hard decision for him and for all of us. Unfortunately, many people disagreed, and were not nice in expressing their opposition. Also on August 23, he wrote:

This process has been exhausting but I feel I did the right thing. So now I am facing the consequences of my actions and I expected that. Much of the negativity is from people that say masks don’t work and the vaccines don’t work. Others think this is an attack on personal freedom.

Interestingly, I was getting hate emails from both sides before the mandate. Now the hate emails have turned personal. People think that just because you are elected that you don’t feel. OH, we feel! It hurts to read emails saying negative things about you or the town you love. And while I am used to personal attacks some of the nastiness this week was out of bounds.

“You pose as a Christian, but I can see through that.”

“You are going to hell.”

“I rebuke the evil dwelling in you in the name of Jesus.”

“God help us rid ourselves of people like you.”

And those are the ones I can print. My intentions are, and always have been, to help Cary citizens. I think it is fine to disagree, we do it all the time on council. But we respect each other as brothers and sisters. Personally, I think that is how we should all behave.

These are hard times, which raise hard issues and hard questions. I know I don’t have all the answers, even for myself, let alone for my community, my country, or my world. The only thing I am clear about is the truth of some of the most-often quoted words of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. He says:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.–– Dalai Lama

So that is my pledge. I seek to be kind to those I disagree with, to those whose values differ from mine, to those whose thinking I don’t understand. I try to be kind with those on whom this issues fall so heavily…the health care workers of course, the teachers, the store owners and small businesses and entrepreneurs trying to stay in business and stay in compliance with governmental rules, the public employees. But I will also remember what a difficult issue that is for elected officials, for heads ofC military or religious organizations, and for other leaders of large institutions that must grapple with these hard questions, and extend that kindness to them as well. Finally, I want to be kind to everyone who is affected with these issues and these policies…which is all of us, really.

So, basically, I am striving to be kind to everyone whenever possible. I just have to keep remembering that it is always possible.

How about you? Can you also sign on to this pledge? Can you imagine how much nicer even these terrible pandemic times would be if we all did?


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