During the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic, my brother and I congratulated each other that we had little to fear. Descended from hardy Irish peasants who lived in dirt-floored hovels among farm animals, we’d inherited sturdy immune systems and pretty much never get sick.
Or so we assured each other.
Except, come to think of it, our maternal grandfather, Michael Sheedy, died during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic at age 34. His own father had died earlier the same year at 56. Our mother was 5 years old when her grandfather and father succumbed to influenza. Although she rarely spoke of it, her childhood had been a difficult one. All this in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where we were born.
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So maybe we needed to be a little less cocky and more careful, we agreed. Indeed, we both got ourselves and our wives as close to the front of the vaccination line as we could. I stubbornly stayed on hold throughout an entire BBC-TV documentary to make an appointment at the university hospital; my brother drove three hours each way to get his shot at a pharmacy he found online. Hardly heroic, but the right call.
That said, I’ve got a ready answer when people ask me what it’s like to live in a place like Arkansas, filled with COVID-deniers and vaccine resisters: See, I’ve been there before. Our mother grew up fearful and superstitious, more apt to credit the florid imaginings of her craziest sister than any doctor. Radio commentator Walter Winchell — the Tucker Carlson of his day — once opined that the miraculous Salk polio vaccine “might be a killer.”
And that was that. No killer vaccine for her children. No how, no way. Although we dutifully toured the iron lung exhibit on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights — scarier than any haunted house — and while I faithfully prayed for a polio-stricken neighbor named Ronnie every night, I never got immunized until I enrolled in the Peace Corps at 24. (I never actually met Ronnie, and have no idea what became of him.)
Until I asked him, I never knew that my brother did receive the Salk vaccine after being denied enrollment in the second grade. Our younger sister, too. I somehow slipped through the cracks. No way was our mother going to risk all three children without being compelled. Charismatic and forceful in other arenas, my father knew better than to argue. Or maybe he shared her paranoia. It was always hard to tell.
Meanwhile, the national press has been filled with stories about Arkansas’ quaint folkways and consequent sorrows. The Wall Street Journal interviewed a nurse in Greenwood, over near Fort Smith along the Oklahoma border. Both her parents came down with COVID after attending their 52nd high school reunion in July and died within three days of each other.
Devastated by grief, the nurse, Shanda Parish, says she still won’t take the vaccine. It’s too untested, she thinks. She has a brother living near Washington, D.C., who’s worn out arguing about it. His parents needn’t have died, David Herring told a reporter, but for fear and ignorance.
“Their age and health conditions — they should have gotten vaccinated really early,” he said. “And then trying to talk to friends of theirs and hearing these ridiculous things about depopulation and computer chips.”
The Journal also interviewed local physician (and Republican state legislator) Lee Johnson. Dr. Johnson urges his patients to take the COVID vaccine, although he cautions that making people “feel defensive for their passionately held opinion isn’t productive.”
As a politician, however, Johnson voted for Arkansas’ crackpot law forbidding school districts and private employers from mandating face masks. So it’s hard to know what to make of him. After a Little Rock judge found the law unconstitutional, GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson hired a Democratic lawyer from Fayetteville to help him resist the Republican attorney general’s effort to have the state Supreme Court reinstate the mask ban.
Meanwhile, local school boards all over Arkansas are requiring students and faculty to mask up, even as angry protesters invoke their constitutional right to infect others with a deadly disease. Vaccination rates are rising sharply. And just across the border in Springfield, Missouri, The Kansas City Star reports, anti-vax activists showed up wearing yellow Stars of David to emphasize their victimization.
In short, it’s all chaos and dark comedy: Mark Twain’s “Arkansaw lunkheads” in action. If only pediatric wards statewide weren’t filling up with children on ventilators, it would be quite funny.
Trump, see, thought COVID might interfere with his reelection, so he told his followers the disease was a Democratic hoax. Many Arkansans believed him. Some would rather die than admit error. Now, they’re too scared to think straight.
Anyway, here’s what I learned at my mother’s knee: You can’t reason people into common sense. Sometimes, you just have to force the issue.
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.
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