Even if the damage unvaccinated people do is to themselves, it hurts us all

A person who works in city government recently tried to explain why he opposes masks and COVID-19 vaccines. Both of our arguments are well known; you have likely heard them and spoken them at some point over the course of this pandemic. But his final question shocked me. Admitting that masks and vaccines may indeed be lifesaving strategies, but continuing to eschew them, he asked, “If we are hurting only ourselves, why do you care?”

The premise is not true; refusing vaccines and masks affects us all, from breakthrough infections to closures to hospital strain. However, it is true that that the vaccinated are doing much better. All of the reputable data clearly shows that infections, hospitalizations and deaths are significantly lower for the vaccinated. While we can expect the raw numbers in Alaska to be smaller, the proportions will likely be the same. The gap is widening, and the damage that the unvaccinated are doing is most broadly and most deeply to themselves.

So, “If we are hurting only ourselves, why do you care?”

All major religions require us to love our fellow human beings. This is not limited to “the golden rule,” which essentially states that we should all treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated; it goes much deeper than that, calling on us to see our souls as inextricably linked with all other people. It’s not enough to see another’s suffering and wave it off, dismissing it because we think that maybe they made their own choice that caused this pain. Instead, nearly every religion teaches us to care so deeply about the other that their suffering becomes our suffering, their grief becomes our grief, because we are siblings. We are one.

Maintaining this communion of spirit is never easy. We humans are prone to passionate disagreements, bitter divisions, anger, schism and war. That’s why most religions also direct us to particularly love those who disagree with us. On a political level, this is why we so often call for unity in times of crisis, such as these: Not only because it allows for better shared strategies, but because at a deeper level, we recognize that we are all part of the same bigger picture. Who we love and care about is not limited only to those who are on “our side.”

That love for those who oppose us is of the utmost importance now, as after two long years, animosity is spiking as quickly as the omicron variant. Families and workplaces struggle to find peaceful ways to have (or avoid) conversations on the topic, school board and Assembly meetings have become infernos of rage and vitriol, and even the heroic health care workers are vilified. Unity and shared strategies, though excellent goals, are all but impossible to achieve when data is disregarded and exhortations from experts are ignored. In the face of such division, when data and community are rejected along with the basic scientifically proven safety strategies such as masks and vaccines, all that remains to be said is that we want you to live. You are killing yourselves, and we want you not only to survive, but to thrive, and to join us at the party when we reach the other side.

“If we are hurting only ourselves, why do you care,” he asked me. My answer: We care because no matter how much you disagree with us, no matter how much you reject science, no matter how much harm you do… You are our brothers and sisters, and we love you.

Rev. Matt Schultz, an Anchorage pastor, is on the steering committee for Christians for Equality.

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