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After a COVID skeptic falls to the disease, people ask an awkward question: Should we care?

Danny Westneat
The Seattle Times (TNS)
Marc Bernier of station WNDB of Orlando, Florida, during a radio interview Oct. 24, 2006. The outspoken anti-vaccine radio host died of COVID-19 last week. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A reader wrote in with a blunt and honest comment that I want to share, because it alludes to a shift that’s taking place in society as we struggle to deal with this latest surge of the pandemic.

“I realized this pandemic is changing me, and not for the better,” the reader wrote. “It’s making me a colder and more callous person.”

She went on to describe a growing phenomenon. Which is that when people die of COVID-19 now, and inevitably it turns out they were unvaccinated or even had views that were hostile to the public health effort, “what pops into my mind first thing is ‘oh well, too bad.’”

“It’s a horrible reaction for any fellow human to have. I feel awful about it. But it’s there.”

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It sure is. It happened locally when a man, aged 67, died this month of COVID-19 in north Puget Sound. I’ve decided not to name the man, even though his death was public record, because he isn’t a public figure and his family only held his memorial last weekend and doesn’t need the extra layers of grief.

But the reality is awkward and also increasingly commonplace. The man had spent months on social media mocking the “Covid hype and hysteria created by the so-called experts,” as he dubbed it in a Facebook post last March. In between posts claiming the last election was stolen, he boosted a slew of vaccine lies, such as that the antibodies created by the shots would eventually turn deadly themselves. He mocked masks, proposed jail for Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggested people who took the vaccines were sheep, and so on.

On July 20, he wrote: “Covid isn’t the primary pandemic anymore. Irrational fear is.”

Four days later, these posts stopped. He was in a medically induced coma, due to COVID, according to family members. Two weeks after that he was dead.

Many north Puget Sounders have expressed public condolences for his passing. But many others, put off by his record of spreading COVID doubts and conspiracies, have all but danced on his grave.

“In the words of Trump’s 3rd wife, Melania, ‘I don’t really care, do you?’” read one comment on a local social media post about his death.

“Honestly, I am not sad for his death,” said another.

“This aged very poorly,” said another, underneath a recent Facebook post of his, still up after his death, in which he labeled the coronavirus “mass hysteria.”

These deaths of COVID-19 skeptics, followed by a flood of schadenfreude, are fast becoming a daily spectacle in America. Most of them happen quietly, like this one in north Puget Sound. But in the past few weeks three prominent conservative radio hosts, who decried vaccines or called the coronavirus a “scamdemic,” have themselves perished of the disease.

This is only going to accelerate. The COVID-19 deaths occurring in hospitals now are almost exclusively among the unvaccinated, and they are rising rapidly. At least until that changes, the dishing out of just desserts is probably going to proliferate as well.

“Should we care what happens to people who are willfully unvaccinated against COVID-19?” pondered a recent newspaper interview with an ethicist.

Does that question really require the services of an ethicist? Of course we should care. And yet:

“He chose to ignore the science that he was perfectly capable of understanding,” another poster wrote about the north Puget Sound man. “So I don’t have empathy for this person. Empathy is like pie — there is only so much to go around.”

I appreciate the candor of the reader who said the pandemic is making her a “colder and more callous person.” Back at the start, we speculated that maybe the pandemic would open eyes and hearts to the deep stratifications of society. Maybe it even has in some cases. But here 18 months on, it’s also clear that the polarized and politicized way the whole thing has played out is leading to a hardening of the tribes.

I think my reader is on to something. Her email was headlined: “Is empathy running out?”

“I go back and forth between being furious and sad,” she wrote. “Furious at the anti-science ignorance causing the thousands of totally unnecessary deaths. Sad at my own growing heartlessness about it.”

Maybe that’s compassion fatigue after a long two years, and it will pass (it would help if everyone would just get the damn vaccine already). But I’m sad-mad too — incredulous actually — at how something as natural as an infectious microbe could be cynically manipulated into a political force this divisive.

It’s sobering how effectively this virus preyed on the weak spots in our culture, every bit as much as it has managed to penetrate and infect so many bodies.