COVID-19 came early for Joe Joyce. So did the trolls.
Two weeks after returning from a Mediterranean cruise with his wife, Joyce, a Brooklyn bar owner, suffered breathing problems and was admitted to a hospital. That was March 27, 2020. He died on April 9. In a New York Times interview, Joyce’s children said their father, a Trump supporter, downplayed the severity of the virus. He believed Sean Hannity of Fox News, who called the pandemic “a new hoax” to hurt the then-president’s reelection chances.
That’s when people pounced. On Twitter, one person posted “This is what MAGA zombies are fighting for. More stories like this.” Another wrote “Bon voyage . . . what, too soon?” The snarky phrase “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes” popped up too many times to count. In the Times comment section there was generally more compassion but also a palpable sense that Joyce got what he deserved.
No one deserves COVID-19.
From the beginning of this pandemic, there’s been a severe deficit of empathy. Armed anti-lockdown protests seemed to accelerate last spring after headlines indicated that people other than the protesters themselves — especially communities of color — were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Health officials and educators trying to keep children safe are being terrorized over mask and vaccine mandates. Americans’ inability to put the greater public good above their own selfishness and political ideology has been this virus’s most deadly mutation.
With the highly contagious Delta variant tearing through the country, especially in regions with low vaccination rates, have come reports of vocal anti-vaxxers succumbing to COVID-19. Conservative talk show hosts Phil Valentine, Marc Bernier, Dick Farrel, and Jimmy DeYoung all died last month. A California mother of four who touted herself as “unmasked, unmuzzled, unvaccinated, unafraid” on a now-private Facebook page died Sept. 15.
Families now use obituaries and memorial services to encourage the vaccine-resistant to do what their loved ones would not. Yet too often these deaths, which likely would have been prevented with one of three highly effective vaccines, become an invitation for self-satisfied mocking and derision.
I understand the frustration because I feel it, too. Whatever their reasons, the unvaccinated are screwing everything up for the rest of us. They are the reason for renewed mask mandates, overwhelmed hospitals, and outbreaks that have temporarily shut down some school districts. In July, Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama said: “Folks are supposed to have common sense. But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”
Ivey is no less to blame. Alabama is averaging about 3,000 new coronavirus cases a day, and for the first time in its history it saw more deaths than births in 2020. Yet her administration is still fighting against vaccine mandates.
When Dr. Anthony Fauci, then a member of Trump’s White House coronavirus task force, said in March 2020 that 100,000 to 200,000 people could die from COVID-19, that number was too large to comprehend. In two months, that prediction was surpassed. Now this nation, which already has the world’s highest pandemic death toll, will soon top 700,000 COVID dead.
That so much of this was preventable should shame this nation forever. I’m angry at what might have been and all the uncertainty and grief that lie ahead. But I just can’t debase my humanity to mock the dead and dying.
Know who used to jeer the dead? Rush Limbaugh. As he was becoming the biggest bigoted mouth on talk radio, Limbaugh briefly had an anti-gay segment called “AIDS Update.” While playing “I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” Limbaugh would read the names of those who died from AIDS. Though he later apologized, his actions were indefensible, punishing not only the dead but those who loved them.
With so many people unvaccinated, those who are derided are closer than anyone wants to believe — even within their own families. A Twitter user recently posted: “My anti-vax brother got COVID 12 days ago and is experiencing all the horrible symptoms we’ve heard so much about; he opted to believe Facebook and Instagram over family friends. I used to say THEY deserve what the[y] get. But it’s MY brother fighting for his life. I am so mad.”
COVID disinformation campaigns on social media deserve our disgust and ire. So do state officials and legislatures using their powers to strip away protective measure. But there’s no moral superiority in dancing on the graves of the reluctant or defiant led astray by duplicitous politicians and propaganda pretending to be factual. Such attitudes only breed more ugliness in a nation where empathy and compassion continue to be in shorter supply than ICU beds.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.