It’s been just under two years since I last visited New York. My first surprise was at JFK international airport after landing when I made my way out of the airport in just under 30 minutes. Not one TSA (Transportation Security Authority) representative nor border control officer who checks your passport and personal documentation inquired nor checked anything related to my Corona status, despite my being equipped with several documents in English from Israel attesting to multiple vaccinations and my PCR results.
Later in the day while making the rounds on Central Ave in the heart of Five Towns, there was an eerie silence despite the many eateries with lines of hungry customers, the overall majority maskless as they waited on lines inside the eateries. As for shuls; I found only one minyan that prayed in an erected tent alongside the existing main Synagogue building, all others praying inside with the greater majority of those attending maskless. No one checked who I am, my vaccination status, anything at all.
As my very first day back in New York continued, I got this strange sensation that I am missing something, that my interpretation of these events at JFK or at the local restaurants and shuls was somewhat detached from reality, as if I was the odd one out and everything around me was routine and normal. It seemed as if most of those around me were no longer worried about Covid-19, as if corona was no longer a threat, no longer an issue of public health but had been transformed into a political metaphor for invasive and unnecessary governmental intervention,
The movie, “Dr. Strangelove How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” kept cropping up in my mind. In the movie Dr. Strangelove, General Ripper claimed that water fluoridation was destroying “our precious bodily fluids”—a reference to the claim that water fluoridation was a conspiracy designed to weaken US willpower and make the country susceptible to a Communist takeover.
Although there were occasional references to a Communist conspiracy in the anti-fluoridation movement in the United States and Canada, this was not a common feature of the debate. More commonly, opponents believed that they should not have to take medicine against their will. Much of the opposition focused on the possible health risks. As communities across the United States and Canada debated whether to add fluoride to their water supply in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a significant debate over the merits of fluoridation within the scientific, medical, and dental communities. For many Americans, fluoridation was perceived as a monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot that had challenged America during the Cold War.
According to public records in the United States, unvaccinated adults tend to be younger, with two-thirds of adults who have not gotten a COVID-19 vaccine under age 50. Over half identify as Republican or lean Republican, compared to a third of vaccinated adults. Almost half of unvaccinated adults have a high school education or less (45%), with around a third having completed some college (35%), and 20% with a college degree or more. By contrast, adults who have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine are somewhat older, with about half over the age of 50. More have a college degree or higher and they are more likely to identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, with 54% who identify as Democrats compared to 16% of unvaccinated adults.
So, according to these statistics, Covid-19 has stopped being understood by the public as a public health crisis or a pandemic. Covid-19 has become an issue of political persuasion, an issue of governmental intervention, and an issue of whether to believe in the medical establishment. The lingering conclusion from these statistics seem to be counter intuitive. Why would younger, less educated as well as college educated population groups be more prone to avoid vaccinating, and more inclined to take the risks inherent in being unvaccinated?
In the field of psychology, there is a distinction between what is known as omission and commission. Commission meaning taking active action and omission meaning not taking any action at all. When the harm from vaccinating and not vaccinating are perceived as equivalent in terms of risk, people prefer not to vaccinate. The reasoning behind this mindset is based on the idea that people feel responsibility if harm follows an action they take and feel less responsibility if the harm is the result of their inaction. The bottom line being that if we choose not to do anything, we don't feel as much blame as if we did something.
To deal with this dilemma, the public has turned a deaf ear to recognized and formal authorities on Covid-19, whether political, medical, or scientific. Instead they have turned to their most trusted authority on Covid-19; “Dr. Google”. Over the years, a large part of the American public has been dependent on over-the-counter medication for various acute and chronic medical conditions. These consumers of self-medication have become accustomed to checking with “Dr. Google”, having no need or trust in the conventional medical profession. The vast amount of information provided at no cost by “Dr. Google” allows the public to justify and verify almost any opinion or understanding that they wish to validate; whether to perceive Covid-19 as a life threatening illness or not.
To compete with the impact of “Dr. Google”, what is lacking is a national political leadership that can present a credible and convincing case to either vaccinate or not, whether to wear a mask or not, and whether to avoid unnecessary exposure or to act as if there is nothing to worry about. Sadly, today’s political leadership in America, as personified by President Joe Biden, has been unable to provide the American people with a convincing case to make the right decision.
True leadership should always strive to assure safety for the people. An absence of this assurance is the first sign that a nation lacks adequate leadership. America’s crisis of leadership will only intensify as the omicron variant takes its toll and continues to spread and infect the vulnerable.