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?