The schadenfreude of anti-vaxxer deaths
The uncomfortable reactions when conspiracy theorists pass away from Covid and what it says about us
Thanks for reading When an Advertising Watchdog Chases its Tail last week, about how New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Authority had essentially given the tick to a bunch of anti-vax, anti-mask bullshit.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise: The ASA as some kind of meaningful ruling entity is a mirage. It’s essentially run by advertisers to keep themselves, and customers, feeling good. To give the illusion of regulation. But it’s spineless, especially when it comes to making rulings on anything that might be seen to encroach on “free speech” — even when that free speech is a bunch of disinformation.
I spoke a little more about all this on RNZ with Jesse Mulligan — you can listen to that here.
But after last week’s piece, I got to thinking about something else: How we react when we hear the news of anti-vaxxers dying from Covid. When we hear of vaccine conspiracy theorists dying alone and terrified in a hospital bed from the virus. How we’ve taken to filing these stories under “entertainment”.
These stories appear all over the planet, so I guess it should come as no surprise that New Zealand has them too. Rex, for example — the ex-journalist who spiralled into an anti-vax vortex this year.
Rex passed away at the end of last month from Covid.
Webworm reader Alex has also been thinking about this, and posted this under my piece last week:
“I see photos and obits of Covid victims every day on Twitter, mostly. I dunno why I follow these accounts. I’m rather wary of saying this, but at this point, after two years of the entire globe suffering, I see these photos and just kinda shrug, “Shoulda got vaxxed.”
I’m worried that this callousness may be permanent, but perhaps it’s just a protective shell I’ve formed so that each death doesn’t break my heart. And besides, what about all the others they may have endangered?”
All of Alex’s points ring true for me. I feel all those things. I felt them when I wrote about the vehemently anti-vax member of Hillsong Church who died from Covid.
I got to talking to my friend Hayden Donnell about this — and I liked our conversation so much I asked him to write about it. And he did.
Take it away, Hayden.
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The Bad Guys are Winning
by Hayden Donnell
Brytney Cobia described the final conscious moments of some of her Covid patients to the Birmingham News in July. “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine,” the Alabama doctor said. “I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”
The story became a kind of news meme. Florida nurse Tammi Daniel gave a similar interview to CNN three days later. “Every single day you’re getting ready to intubate the patient, and they say, ‘If I get the vaccine now, can I not go on the ventilator?'” she said.
More recently in Australia, ICU nurse Michelle Spence said one of her biggest struggles is seeing people wanting to get vaccinated just before they’re put on life support.
These accounts are a bleak reminder that some decisions can’t be taken back. But they also contain a tiny fragment of hope. They tell us that when confronted with the hardest, coldest, facts of life, people really can change their minds.
On the HermanCainAward subreddit, a different, darker narrative is more common. The community tracks the online posts of anti-vaxxers who contract Covid. Upon death the “nominee” is bestowed with the eponymous award, named after the prominent Republican who died of Covid after being photographed maskless at a Trump rally.
A typical entry will start with a series of defiant posts. The nominee will call the vaccinated sheep and the unvaccinated lions, or say mean stuff about Bill Gates. That’s followed by a status announcing they’ve caught the virus. The next updates usually appeal for the intervention of prayer warriors or deliver info about oxygen levels. A final entry, usually posted by a family member, reveals that heaven has gained an angel, and asks for donations to a GoFundMe covering the deceased’s medical bills.
One of the most striking things about these posts is how few of the people at their centre seem to experience even a flickering moment of regret. Many of them are still posting about Pfizer’s criminal record as the doctors get ready to insert a tube into their throats.
That immunity to material truth isn’t just a US phenomenon. The anti-vax journalist Rex Warwood died recently of Covid-19 in Aotearoa New Zealand. Days before he was admitted to hospital, his friend Steve Burr phoned to check in, and found the 80-year-old coughing and spluttering. “You’ve not had the vaccine. I know you haven’t,” said Burr. “You’re not sticking that shit in me,” Warwood replied. When you hear about enough people like that, Cobia, Daniel, and Spence’s patients start to seem like outliers. It’s clear many people will die before they admit they're wrong.
When Lili Loofbourrow covered HermanCainAward for Slate, she saw a kind of base malevolence at work. “It is an anti-persuasive venue,” she wrote. “A place that dispenses with rational appeals for people to behave better in favor of something much more primal and horrifying.” There’s definitely seething anger lurking in the sarcastic posts on the subreddit. The wearying effects of the pandemic have eroded people’s patience; whittling it to the point where they’re willing to sneer at those who’ve just died an agonising death.
But Loofbourrow said she couldn’t find a satisfying explanation for that fury; for how “pro-social impulses could get coarsened” to the point where people are “literally celebrating deaths”. If she’d excavated a little deeper, I think she’d have found something only hinted at in her article: powerlessness. There’s dejection in the mocking chorus. Not just anger, but a distorted manifestation of another stage of grief: acceptance. Its posts are a vision of what happens when 419,000 people give up and decide to break a social contract they feel isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
In a way, who could blame them? The world is hurtling toward catastrophic levels of warming while political leaders reassure coal miners their jobs are safe for “decades to come”, and piss their pants whenever someone suggests we take away some car parks to make room for bikes.
We can’t get out of the global pandemic that’s ruined our lives for two years because millions of people won’t take the cure for the virus, and billions more haven’t been given access to that cure because it would chip away at some corporations’ bottom line. When someone says they want to talk about a genocide stoked by Facebook, the correct response is “which one?”. If they ask how long it will take to save up a house deposit, it’s worth clarifying if they mean in decades or centuries.
Half the political establishment is actively trying to make these problems worse for votes, and the other half is too sclerotic and divided to address them properly. Barack Obama recently told an audience that members of the coming generation are the source of his hope. Many people are feeling annoyed at this because when he ran for president on a platform of “change we can believe in”, they thought he meant it would happen during his time in office.
As the world smoulders, The New York Times is pumping out op-eds about cancel culture on campus. The Guardian’s editors are waking up every morning and issuing a guttural scream at the thought of trans people using the toilet.
The Washington Post is coming up with pie-eyed headlines that muse on why young people may be relating to the themes shown in Squid Game.
Even if these powerful news organs could squint down from their offices long enough to respond appropriately to our various existential crises, would they change anyone’s mind?
US audiences settle in every night for several hours of proto-facism on primetime TV. A huge segment of society has been sucked so far down an algorithmic wormhole they’ve completely lost touch with objective reality. Bitcoin enthusiasts are buying “Tungsten cubes” with a density 1.7 times that of lead just because they need to “feel something tangible”. Instagrammers are faking post-vaccine seizures to sell goops. People are eating dirt from an Ontario peat bog in an effort to cure Covid. The internet has confiscated our brain cells and put them in a lockbox at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It increasingly feels like they aren’t coming back.
Help isn’t on its way. The grown ups aren’t stepping up to fix what they broke. They’re posting LinkedIn statuses about how Millennials are failing because they were given participation trophies. They’re getting Covid and using the last few flaring neurons in their brains to post memes about Anthony Fauci. No matter what the sickness is, or how far it’s spread, they’re not taking the vaccine.
For some, the response to this has been to band together against the extractive hyper-capitalism at the heart of these problems. Movements like the Great Resignation are fundamentally rooted in the hope that minds can be changed, and systems of oppression can be altered or even overcome.
On HermanCainAward, you can see where that hope flickers out, and lapses into a more caustic kind of nihilism. The poor schmucks that fill its pages aren’t the real villains. They’re volunteering as tribute for Mark Zuckerberg or Tucker Carlson, dying for the sin of being scammed down a rabbit hole by amoral tech lords and propagandists.
But someone deserves to pay for what’s befallen us, and justice isn’t on its way. This sad perversion of it looks like it’s all we’ll get. It’s tempting, but it’s clearly poison. We have to hold onto hope. After all, maybe things will be better in the Metaverse.
David here again. Hayden likes to do a bleak ending, but that ending might be his bleakest yet. Good as we prepare to start a new week, eh?
Share this one if you like — I love Hayden’s essay and want it to spread: webworm.co/p/schadenfreude
And as usual — I want to know what you reaction to this stuff is. Sorrow, anger, humour… or a tired shrug of the shoulders?
I recently put this post on facebook. It took me a bit of courage because I am diffident and not good at arguing. I expected to lose a lot of contacts over it. I can't screenshot it from here so I have just copied the text. It answers some of the issues about the future and how to handle all of this. I very nearly quote Webworm and in the comments I credit it. Here it is.
'I am aware that I am an outlier in several respects among people I know in the wellness/alt health/spiritual communities around me and I expect I am no longer welcome among some. I got vaccinated as early as I could and have wasted time in my head ever since trying to justify myself. So here is a bit of an essay about this.
For those who are resisting the vaccine, I just want to say please be careful about your fellow travellers. There are people alongside you who do not care about human rights and social justice, and I use those terms thoughtfully I hope. I have done as much reading and thinking as I reasonably can without being obsessed with the damn thing. So: if it looks a bit fashy it probably is. If it looks like it is glomming onto your cause it probably is. If it looks opportunistic or like plain old grift it probably is. We all know how to follow the money and there is some influencer culture that needs to be burned to the ground. If you think your cause is worth hanging out with bad actors, then, well, gosh.
As for some of the things I hear people say, I just don’t believe them. I don’t believe that there is a microchip in me or that the admittedly execrable Mr Gates wants to control our minds or that I will harm you spiritually by leaking vaccine. Yes, I will see myself out now, but before I do:
Here is why I took the vaccine:
I work with vulnerable people in a poorly regulated and poorly resourced part of the health system. The people I work with did not want to be vaccinated themselves. It seemed sensible to get vaccinated myself, so I did.
The drug companies are not our friends. Pfizer has a terrible history and its only redeeming feature is that it is not Purdue (the maker of Oxycontin). They have the governments of the world over a barrel and I imagine they are laughing all the way to the bank.
Nevertheless it made sense to get the vaccine for myself and others and so I did. I don’t have to like the drug companies to do what I think is right.
I don’t ‘trust the science’. There is no ‘the science’; that is a chimera. I respect science, the scientific method, and honest scientists doing their best under difficult circumstances. And so I took the vaccine.
Endless enquiry is a fruitless exercise. At some point with any decision we need to use our own sound judgment and act. If something is being subjected to endless enquiry, enquiry that has meaningless questions or sets a deliberately unobtainable level of proof, that enquiry is at worst naïve and at best disingenuous. Watch the arguments about climate change for an example of this. No argument will convince those with vested interests, or those who weaponize irony, or engage in moral outrage porn. These people are acting in bad faith. So I used my own sound judgment as best I could and took the vaccine.
The main context of taking the vaccine for me was
And no I am not shouting, this is a heading.
Collectivism is people using their freedom to act for and care about everyone. It is more than community. Community means any lobby group these days. Collectivism means you don’t have to be like minded or part of the ‘tribe’. What we have in common is oppression on multiple intersectional points in our lives, some of us more than others of course. That goes for all of us in this terminal stage of totalled capitalism. Acting for others is acting for all. An injury to one is an injury to all. Collectivism thus has no time for ideas of individual sovereignty or purity or cultural atavism. It takes all people as they are.
I don’t have much time for governments actually, tending anarchist, and to the left rather than towards libertarianism. I think if we had more collectivism, we would not have vaccine mandates. Our communities would be really commun-ist and they would take care of people in their own best way. I don’t blame this government any more than any other government, because I think problems are far more systemic. Many, many years of colonialism and abuse have passed and here we are being cajoled and bullied and bribed and patronised and monitored. Because under terminal stage capitalism….. etc etc etc.
There are few examples of anarchist states historically, and in our times Rojava might be a worthy attempt, if it survives the next few months. We have lived in a shitty system for so long that we don’t know any different. We need to unlearn many superficial and pernicious ideas. The fact that collectivism is difficult and we have few models, does not mean we should not attempt it. The way this system has handled Covid augurs poorly for the next crisis, which will be bigger and more clearly climate related. Those who survive will not necessarily be with the ones they love, the ones who think like they do, their own clan or kin. Finding better ways to be together may be essential. '
And here is my comment on the sources: Thank you for the comments. I expected a dogpile. Here are some sources: Behrooz Boochani 'No Friend But The Mountains' on the feminist idea of kyriarchy, the multi pointed system of oppression. Behrooz, a refugee who wrote his book on Manus island on a smuggled cell phone, sat in a lecture hall here and told the chattering classes that we are all in prison. It was inspiring. Shane Burley 'Why We Fight' on Rojava. Conspirituality podcast. Tyson Yunkaporta 'Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking will Save the World'. Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita on the concept of sound judgment. Philosophers C Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams on moral outrage porn. Also David Farrier's Webworm on influencer culture.
Justice isn't on its way - there is no justice in a world where billionaires get richer while billions are unable to access a vaccine that would save us from the evolution of variants of a virus that has the potential to be our Black Plague. There is no justice.
But perhaps there is hope. As we realise that there is no help, no justice, we who are being ruined by the billionaires and the politicians and the landlords and the myriad other wealthy leeches, perhaps we can transform from dreamers to doers, downtrodden to change-makers.
It's a faint hope, there are so many barriers and challenges and fights to get from where we are to where we need to be to make change, but we are hurtling toward a tipping point in history where we make change or we are extinguished as a species. That's not hyperbole any more - with climate change, with Covid, with inequality, with so many things, we're really really running out of time as a species to work out a way to survive, never mind thrive.
I don't know what change looks like, I don't know how we get there, but I know that we can't go on as we are, thrashing our planet and the people on it within an inch of their capacity. We can't keep ripping coal and other fossil fuels from the belly of the earth, burning it, and thinking it's going to be ok. We can't keep making people work three jobs with no pee breaks to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. We can't keep withholding essential medicine from people just because they're not able to pay, nor can we keep letting children sleep in garages and cars. Something, many things, everything has to change.
So there is hope. Hope that we see this need for change and put shoulder to plough and do it.
Or we do not. And then there is hope that the earth regenerates without us and the next dominant species does better.