Last week, just two weeks after joining the local elementary school, our 7-year old son tested positive for COVID-19 and just a few hours later, so did our 3-year old daughter. Our story and this surge are not unique; Tennessee recently crossed the 1 million cases mark and the fact that the state’s ICU beds and therapeutics are in short supply again means that many fellow Tennesseans have endured the same plight. What makes this virus surge different are some of the longer-term consequences that come from being anti-mask, anti-vax, and anti-science.
I campaigned for Congress through 19 counties, which are home to many people who are anti-mask, anti-vax, and skeptical of the reality and harm of COVID. My wife is a critical care physician, managing the ICUs at several hospitals since before the pandemic. She has seen the worst of COVID and the less frequent COVID successes from the ICU. We knew that contracting the virus and passing it on to our elderly and immunocompromised relatives was a risk. However, through my campaign and more importantly, through 18 months of my wife’s ICU work, not one of our staff, friends, or relatives contracted COVID from our work or events—even though the vaccine wasn’t widely available until 2021.
How did we do that? We got vaccinated the earliest we could, wore masks, maintained bubbles, and made sure we didn’t engage in unnecessarily risky behavior. It meant that the kids wore masks. It meant that we sat outside instead of inside a restaurant. It meant that we attended cookouts instead of house parties. It was ironic when we heard people talk about how masks violated their freedoms, even though those were the same people telling us that “freedom isn’t free” for years. In just two weeks, following a nationally covered school board meeting in which people opposed masks, all our work had been defeated by people not adhering to safe practices in the school system.
For the politically entrenched, healthcare workers and scientists have gone from heroes to villains, from those who pursued knowledge to those who lie to the public. Neighbors see those of us who advocated for masks and vaccinations as out to get them, while we apparently see their lack of masks as a way to get us.
My last statement contains the most troubling issue, the fact that neighborhoods have an intractable fight between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Much has been written about the effects of tribalism on our society – needless to say that it will take more than just lip service to fix that problem.
Longer term, while my young kids will have to play catch up, that is nothing compared to what might happen in medicine. The healthcare system is already rife with problems, including the shortage of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers we will be facing in the coming years.
The sustained enmity towards healthcare workers deters people from entering the field and dissuades those in the field from direct patient care. Before we start saying that we can train more doctors to make up for that, remember that while applications to medical school may have recently increased, the actual number of medical school, residency, and fellowship spots has not gone up significantly. This is to say nothing of the risks to people who have other medical needs, cannot have a procedure, or endure further shortages of therapeutics – things that can have other long term consequences.
Similarly, we have made it so that peer reviewed research that moves us forward is somehow equal to my isolationist uncle yelling out after a day on Google, “I’ve done my research!” No one is asking people to accept without questioning, but we are asking everyone to recognize the difference between research by experts, and conspiracy or political websites. When a neighbor claimed that there was no evidence that masks worked and challenged everyone to show him otherwise, my wife and I directed him to several hundred articles from public health institutions, the CDC, NIH, and the fact that masks have been effective in the medical world for decades. His response can be paraphrased in one word: “Oh.”
That response, luckily, led to conversations. It opened a dialogue with others about the exasperation of physicians and the effects on healthcare, as well as the rhetoric from politicians and the reality on the ground.
Not one dedicated healthcare worker I have ever talked to has given anything but their best to any patient, but many have talked about retiring early or moving to another career. This nation has thrived on innovation, achievement, creativity, and the investment in research and science – the very reasons that brought my entire family to this country as immigrants. We cannot afford to lose this part of our national identity, and we cannot afford to be the nation that rejects science and research while others speed past us by building on scientific achievement. Being anti-mask and anti-vax is not protecting freedom, it’s sacrificing what has made this country great in the name of ignorance and stubbornness. Frankly, it’s unpatriotic. It’s time to recognize the long-term effects or perish under our own individual egos.
Kiran Sreepada is a public policy expert and former congressional candidate in Tennessee’s 7th district. This essay was first published by the Tennessee Lookout.