In the ‘religious war’ over vaccines and masking, Covid non-believers have chosen to immunise themselves from reality, not the virus.

On August 4 this year, long-time American conservative radio talk show host Dick Farrel died from Covid-19 after previously insisting to his audience that the pandemic was a “SCAM DEMIC”, that the vaccine is “Bogus Bull [Shit],” and suggesting that the delta variant is an elaborate ruse orchestrated to keep Americans fearing for their lives.

Upon contracting the virus, Farrel abruptly recanted his previously held convictions, reportedly telling a close friend to get vaccinated because Covid-19 “is no joke” and adding that “I wish I had gotten [vaccinated]!” Farrel had fallen into a Covid “foxhole” and died there, no longer a Covid atheist but dead, nevertheless.

The phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes” is pithy, pointed, poignant and pertinent for today’s ‘religious wars’ over Covid and its vaccines and masks. The intention of the aphorism is to make it plain that given the existential dread of finding yourself in a First World War foxhole, few, if any, would hold on to a worldview with no hope of miracle, redemption, or life after death. It is a statement that principles are often no match for a confounding reality.

This is no more evident than in the current skirmishing over vaccines and masking. I say skirmishing – a minor combat with much noise and usually no casualties – because if the Covid war gets real – infection, hospitalisation, gasping to breathe and hoping to survive with the realisation that you, like the shell-shocked of World War One, may never be the same again - it seems that there are few who will be able to maintain their skeptical stance.

Now, if the Covid atheists – those who seriously doubt the reality of the situation – were mere bystanders, their presence might be nothing more than a social curiosity. Cruelly and paradoxically, those who most strenuously deny the reality of Covid and the measures we have to mitigate it are now the most likely to perpetuate its existence.

The ‘atheists’ are getting sick, spreading the virus to others, and serving as the petri dish for new variants. That they are also dying from the disease they trivialised begets a mirthless schadenfreude. Ironically, the pandemic will go on longer because of the resistance of the Covid deniers.

When Covid does become real, there is instantly a trust in the care and the knowledge of the medical community, so recently vilified as untrustworthy and misguided. If it wasn’t so pathetic it might also be considered ironic.

The health care that they expect, and are entitled to, is, in my country, Canada, funded by all (a majority of whom are not Covid atheists) and whatever resources go to treating Covid are unable to be utilised for other health concerns. When the hospitals are overrun with Covid cases in the unvaccinated and other citizens with serious health concerns are denied access to treatment, there is no great justice to be found.

It is far too easy to be a Covid non-believer and angry about the impositions it has led to. Most of us have only a distant connection to the actual illness but we all have a vivid, personal lived experience of Covid restrictions.

Covid-19 is a relatively mild plague. Case fatality rates are about 2 percent and many (perhaps 75 percent) who get (and spread) the infection are never counted as cases. Although 10 percent of documented infections result in significant consequences, 90 percent of documented cases will escape with nothing of lasting significance.

These numbers certainly can support a laissez-faire attitude towards the virus, however, with another, broader, perspective, it means that at least 20 million worldwide will die before the pandemic ends.

To put this in perspective, the scourge of cancer, fought relentlessly and with few ‘atheists’, kills about 10 million people worldwide every year. Had Covid-19 been as lethal as the 1918 pandemic (about 5 percent case-fatality rate), annual deaths would easily exceed those from cancer and almost everyone would either be in the Covid ‘foxhole’ or have a close friend or family member in one. This would certainly mean fewer Covid atheists and a clearer path to ending the pandemic.

Now, some of the Covid non-believers are simply healthy skeptics, perhaps better termed agnostics with unanswered questions. Others are just lazy-minded, sipping conveniently and unreflectively from the tainted offerings of social media.

Many, however, are principled in their atheism. They will vigorously deny the legitimacy of scientific inquiry and defend their freedom to gather unvaccinated, unmasked, and un-distanced for whatever purpose they desire.

Not spoken aloud but always present in the subtext is the unshakeable belief that my rights to liberty Trump (pun intended) your rights to safety. I suspect that all varieties of Covid atheists seek immunity from the realities of the pandemic in their own form of herd mentality.

For the agnostics, I recommend a respectful dialogue with other viewpoints, with the expectation of more mutual understanding. For the lazy-minded, I recommend a healthier diet of information along with some vigorous exercise of the mind. For the true atheists, there is little to say other than you are entitled to your beliefs although not entitled to inflict the consequences of those beliefs on the rest of us.

One might think that the mass of Covid disbelievers would be a serious challenge to successfully quelling the pandemic. Many ultimately victorious campaigns started as principled guerilla movements against the established order. Sticking to your principles, even to death or personal injury, is an admirable trait, even if it seems misguided at times. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian pastor, was hanged for his refusal to bow to Nazism. A patient of mine, a young Jehovah’s Witness woman, chose death from loss of blood after giving birth by refusing a transfusion. Kamikaze pilots fought their enemies with a fierce, fatal determination.

Among Covid atheists however, I suspect there are very few willing to go to the proverbial wall where the firing squad may be aiming. Despite all the noisy (and noisome) protesting, just being prevented from going to their favourite bar or taking a Caribbean vacation is sufficient for many anti-vaxxers to jettison their supposedly deeply ingrained principles.

For all three varieties of Covid disbelievers (in countries with easy access to vaccines), governments should do their duty to protect all their citizens by reasonably limiting individual freedoms - think stop lights, wearing clothes in public, etc. - and require proof of adequate vaccination and compliance with masking and distancing measures to enter ALL public spaces – bars, restaurants, sporting events and hair salons, yes, but also banks, grocery stores, schools, and public transportation, with no medical exemptions, real or fabricated. There is no medical exemption for getting a driving licence, after all.

This would lead to two favourable outcomes:

First, most of the Covid atheists would find a useful clarity that many things matter to them more than their avowed principles and then elect to be vaccinated. Second, those who truly stick to their “guns” and remain unvaccinated will retain their freedom to inhabit their private spheres with their principles intact but without injuring others.

In either case, there will be far fewer Covid foxholes for any of us to find ourselves in and that is an outcome desired by all.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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