Did you hear about the conservative talk show host in Florida who urged people not to give in to the “power trip libb loons” and say no to the vaccine? He’s now dead from the virus, having texted the words “Get it!” to his friends in one of his final acts of life.
Or the 42-year-old mother in Texas who “did not believe in vaccines” until her husband died from Covid-19 and she ended up on a ventilator, begging relatives to make sure her orphaned children get the jab? She’s dead now too.
Or maybe you read the stories in this newspaper or elsewhere about 73-year-old Irish-American Cardinal Raymond Burke who condemned restrictions due to what he called "the Wuhan virus" and is currently on a ventilator. You probably spotted the booming headlines about the 34-year-old "LA man who mocked Covid-19 vaccines and died of virus".
In a country where an incredible 90 per cent of Irish adults have now had at least one dose and 83 per cent are fully vaccinated, you could argue that we've earned the right to be just a little self-righteous
You must have. The reports are everywhere, rising to the top of the most-read charts even in places where the Covid-19 deathbed regretters are not exactly household names. On the internet, this is known – with undisguised, grave-dancing glee – as the Leopards Ate My Face phenomenon. (Reddit explains it as follows: “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party”.)
They serve a purpose, these cautionary tales about the gasping, final breath volte-faces of the remorseful #covidiots. They reinforce the need to get vaccinated and remind us of the damage that conspiracy theories peddled on the internet can do. But, if we’re honest, that’s not really the appeal. These stories are so popular because they give us a (largely false, I’m sorry to say) sense of security.
But they come at the price of social cohesion. They also feed something ugly in our psyches, the idea that there are "good" victims of Covid-19 who deserve our sympathy and "bad" ones who brought it on themselves with their own stupidity, who never believed the leopards would eat their face.
In a country where an incredible 90 per cent of Irish adults have now had at least one dose and 83 per cent are fully vaccinated, you could argue that we’ve earned the right to be just a little self-righteous. An extraordinary number of us have made the rational, moral choice to protect ourselves and others and our Department of Health did its part and delivered an efficient, well-run programme. But let’s not be too smug.
For such a rational bunch, 40 per cent of us will still die from something we could have prevented. Vaccinated or not, we're much more likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease or cancer caused by our own unhealthy habits than we are to the virus. Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that up to 50 per cent of cancer deaths are caused by lifestyle factors.
One hundred people in Ireland are hospitalised every week due to smoking. When we die, our obituaries never mention that it's a pity we didn't give up the fags or the tan-chasing or the nightly half-bottle (or two).
Somebody struggling for their final breath in an ICU unit, with no loved one's hand to hold, should never be the punchline to a gleeful public morality tale, no matter how they ended up there
Recently, we’ve begun to accept some difficult truths. The pandemic will end, but it’s not going to end the tidy way we once imagined. The Delta variant has pushed the threshold for herd immunity to somewhere between 80 per cent and “mythical”, depending on which expert you read.
People who have been vaccinated are thought to transmit the same amount of virus as the unvaccinated, and be half as likely to test positive. Our vaccination programme has been extraordinarily effective, but that won't be enough to end Covid. Israel, the country which was fastest out of the traps with its immunisation programme, is now once again in what its health minister called "a race against the pandemic". Half of those getting sick are fully vaccinated.
The basic tenets of our Government’s “exit” strategy still hold. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer who will get seriously ill at once, the better our hospitals will be able to cope, the more the sense of crisis will recede, and the our lives can return to some kind of normal.
The virus won’t be eliminated, but it will no longer be novel, and our immune systems will be able to cope. The way there is still to vaccinate as many people as possible. We won’t get there any faster – or in better shape as a society – by alienating and mocking those who are holding out.
Revealing accounts by some holdouts published by The Irish Times this week, show that while some are confirmed sceptics, many are merely wary. Some described generalised anxiety about the vaccine and possible side effects. A few mentioned mistrust of “Big Pharma”. Some seem ideologically or politically opposed to vaccination. Some resent, not unreasonably, the idea that they are now second-class citizens in a two-tier society.
Some offered coolly practical explanations – they already had the virus and reckon they're protected. Others have specific fears about, for example, their future fertility. No one mentioned Bill Gates or satanic codes or mass sterilisation plots. There was a sense that some could be persuaded, but they have questions. If the experience of recent years has taught us anything, it is that we need to give the unconvinced room to ask difficult questions.
The revelation this week that 90 per cent of adults have now had one dose has led to an outbreak of self-congratulation about our capacity for empathy and compassion – and deservedly so. The next challenge is whether we can extend that empathy and compassion to those who have decided not to get vaccinated. Somebody struggling for their final breath in an ICU unit, with no loved one’s hand to hold, should never be the punchline to a gleeful public morality tale, no matter how they ended up there.