One of the defining characteristics of Alaska’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the capacity for new extremes. Just when you thought we’d seen the worst in terms of new cases, that record fell. Hospitalizations? New highs there, too. As for the pandemic’s grimmest toll — deaths — that’s a number that only goes up, and lately it’s been a steady march. But on Tuesday, we saw a new extreme, one that was shocking even after 18 months in a world defined by the coronavirus.
Our hospitals are at the breaking point. Providence Alaska Medical Center, the largest hospital in the state, announced Tuesday that it was adopting crisis standards that would mean rationing care. In layman’s terms, that means because of the crush of patients facing the hospital, their resources are overwhelmed and they will have to delay or deny care based on priority. As doctors said this week, it means that if you need help, they may not be able to help you. There are simply too many patients and not enough rooms, beds or medical professionals.
In commentary and interviews, and finally in-person public testimony to the Anchorage Assembly, doctors, nurses and health care workers pleaded with the community to do the right thing. Wearing their scrubs, some of them exhausted after long shifts, they asked those in attendance and listening online to take simple, effective steps that will give us our best chance to beat COVID-19: Get vaccinated. Wear a mask in public. Don’t take unnecessary risks that could lead to injury for yourself or others.
The reception the doctors got at the Assembly meeting was disheartening in the extreme. Members of the public, and even Assembly member Jamie Allard, expressed skepticism that the situation at our hospitals is truly as bad as health care workers say. Some cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccines, spouting misinformation to justify their beliefs. The attitude toward those on the front lines of the pandemic — those who have literally seen friends and neighbors die in front of them — was one of hostility and disdain.
Anchorage is better than that. And we have to prove it, if we want to beat this.
As the pandemic has progressed and calls for vaccination have grown increasingly urgent, most people eligible for the shots have recognized their importance, read up on the science, understood that the vaccines are safe and gotten inoculated. But among a small but significant minority, skepticism of the vaccines has hardened into something angrier and less inclined to reason. The attitudes expressed on social media and in person at the Assembly have moved from “I’m going to wait and see” to “you can’t make me.” Refusing the vaccine — and instead embracing all kinds of debunked remedies, or denying the pandemic outright — has become increasingly tied up in the refusers’ identities and their sense of who they are. And that attitude is tearing our community apart in ways that go far beyond COVID-19.
At the root of it, the argument expressed by those opposing the vaccine usually comes down to “It’s my right to not do anything I don’t want to do.” Strictly and legally speaking, this is accurate: No one will hold anyone down and make them take the vaccine. There’s ample precedent for mandatory vaccinations for some groups — Gen. George Washington, in fact, mandated smallpox vaccinations for his army. Public and private schools, likewise, can mandate vaccinations as a condition of attendance, and state and local health authorities can pass laws that impose consequences on those who refuse vaccines.
Legality aside, however, the notion that we should be able to do whatever we want, even if it endangers others, is contrary to both conservative and liberal principles. It violates the conservative, libertarian ideal of non-aggression by acting as a potential vector for a fatal disease, and not taking proven steps to inhibit that harm. As the saying goes, “Your right to swing your fist (or, in this case, cough out COVID-19 particles) ends where my nose begins.” And it also violates the liberal, communitarian ethic that in order for all of us to be safe, we all have to do our part to keep the virus at bay.
But more than that, this sort of “you can’t make me, and I’d like to see you try” attitude breaks perhaps the deepest Alaskan norm of all: That here at the end of the road, all we have is each other, and we ought to help each other out. It’s why we help pull our neighbors out of the ditch in winter, and why we check to see if they’re all right after an earthquake. If we lose that, Alaska is no different than any other place, and maybe worse than most. There’s no weather as cold as the feeling that you can’t trust your fellow Alaskan to do the right thing to keep you safe when the chips are down.
We’re in this together. Listen to the doctors, don’t mock them. Where we are now is deadly serious, and many more people will die if we let our selfishness get the better of our reason.