The wrong Americans don't care about COVID

COVID. Illustrated | iStock

My former colleague Matthew Walther has managed to stir up quite a bit of controversy with an essay in The Atlantic titled, "Where I live, no one cares about COVID." Some critics seem convinced he's lying about people who live in rural southwest Michigan, while others believe him but think this demonstrates the recklessness and ignorance of his neighbors. This latter group probably would have been thrilled by a piece titled, "Help! Where I live, no one cares about COVID!"

But is it reasonable for people from what Walther calls "the professional and managerial classes" in "a handful of major metropolitan areas" to be outraged by indifference to the pandemic?

The honest answer, I think, is both yes and no.

The pandemic has been going on now for roughly 21 months. Nearly 800,000 people have died so far, despite widely available and highly effective vaccines. Rates of inflection, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising rapidly on a national basis and in Michigan in particular. Those numbers are likely to get worse over the coming weeks and months because of the highly contagious Delta and Omicron variants — and because only 56 percent of people in Michigan are fully vaccinated, with rates in some counties in the rural southwestern part of the state far lower than that.

That's bad, and celebrating it sounds more than a bit like praising people for foolish irresponsibility and indifference to suffering.

Yet most of the people making this point against Walther come from parts of the country where vaccination rates are far higher, the resulting epidemiological risks vastly lower, and mask mandates and other restrictions far more common. If you are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, you have very little chance of getting sick and even less chance of getting seriously ill or dying. The risk to children has always been low, and a vaccinated child faces a truly minuscule chance of serious illness. So why are kids in some areas being forced to mask in school and eat meals on the floor or outside even in wintery weather? And why have masks become so ubiquitous indoors (except, for some reason, in restaurants and bars)?

The darkly comical truth is that Walther's neighbors could use more than a bit of the free-floating COVID anxiety rampant in major metropolitan areas, while people who live in those more densely populated places would benefit quite a lot from a dose of the insouciance Walther fondly describes in his part of the country.

And until that rebalancing happens, it might be a good idea for both camps to judge the other side of the divide a little less harshly.

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