There Are Four Lights

There Are Four Lights October 13, 2021

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for weeks. Maybe months.

I can’t avoid it any longer.

I’ve been trying to move on, to go deeper, to focus on what I’m called to do and ignore everyone else. I’ve made progress, but I continue to be distracted by others.

I’m not sure what I’ll accomplish by writing this. Understanding the problem is the first step in fixing it, but some problems are too big for any individual to fix on their own.

But this is eating me alive from the inside and it needs to come out.

A realistic assessment of the pandemic

Some weeks ago I came across an article in a mainstream publication (The Atlantic? CNN? I don’t remember) that plainly admitted we will never get rid of Covid-19.

The virus is deadly enough to be a major concern, but not deadly enough to kill enough hosts to burn itself out. While the vaccines have proved very effective in preventing hospitalization and death, they’re less effective in preventing infection (thus the “breakthrough” infections) and in preventing transmission. They’re far better than nothing on all counts, but they’re not going to be as effective as, say, the polio vaccine.

This is disappointing. Early hopes were that the vaccines would wipe out the disease, but this is what happens when you’re doing science in real time. As we move forward we may develop better vaccines or more effective treatments, but the evidence strongly indicates that like the Spanish Flu of 1918 – which is still around – Covid-19 will be with us forever.

Different risks, different responses

Given this, the article suggested that different people would take different approaches to living in a Covid-infested world. Those who are young, healthy, and risk-tolerant might live their lives much like they did pre-Covid. Those who are older, less healthy, and risk-averse might take more precautions, including quarantining and wearing N-95 masks when they do go out.

This makes sense. More than that, it’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve mostly avoided crowds, but I’ve gathered with a few close friends for all but the first month of the pandemic. I’ve done some traveling and I’m planning more. I went back to eating in restaurants this spring, then stopped when the Delta variant started rising – I’ll probably go back soon. I’ve done the same with masks.

I have friends who’ve taken more risks than I have. I have friends who are still living as most of us did in March and April of last year. I respect their choices, not in a “your life, your decision” sense, but in the sense of “you’re making the best trade-offs for you, and of course they’re not the same as the trade-offs I’m making for me.”

Why, then, do I get so angry with those who refuse to get vaccinated, ignore mask rules, and such? Aren’t they just making the best trade-offs for themselves? This seems like an inconsistency in my thinking. And while consistency is overrated, it’s still cause for reflection – especially considering it’s causing me so much distress.

“There are five lights”

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is captured by enemies and tortured for information. At one point, he is shown four lights and asked how many there are. When he answers “four” he is given a jolt of intense pain. His torturer tells him “there are five lights.” This exchange continues for some time, with Picard defiantly holding to the truth while his torturer attempts to break his will. Picard is rescued just in time – after he’s safe he admits he was beginning to see five lights.

When someone spouts conspiracy theories about Covid, when they overstate the side effects of vaccines and understate their effectiveness, when they deny or ignore almost 5 million deaths (including almost 750,000 in this country) I hear “there are five lights.”

I don’t get upset because different people have different risks and different aversions to risk and therefore make different decisions.

I get upset because people tell me a lie is the truth.

there are four lights

A litany of lies

I explored the phenomena of conspiracy theories in detail last year. Conspiracy theories arise from a desire to simplify complicated situations. They reflect a lack of scientific knowledge and analysis. Mainly, they provide meaning to those who believe them – they think they’re in on the secret truth. They tell people what they want to be true.

I haven’t heard anyone call it a “plandemic” in a while, but that may just be because I’ve stopped following those who call it that. Even if the release point was a lab (something that’s unlikely but possible, though given the secrecy of the Chinese government we’ll never know for sure) there is no evidence this is anything other than a naturally occurring virus.

The idea that this is a hoax would be laughable if it wasn’t for all the illnesses and deaths.

The idea that it’s some sort of population reduction program or a “great reset” is a total fabrication.

No vaccine is 100% safe or 100% effective. But there are no massive side effects to the Covid vaccines. They don’t guarantee you’ll never get Covid, but they greatly reduce your chances of dying from Covid, or from tying up hospital resources to keep you from dying. We can recognize that drug companies put profits first without falling into the conspiracy theory that vaccines are about nothing other than money.

Messaging around masks has been inconsistent, as the government initially tried to preserve limited PPE supplies for hospital workers. Masks improve the odds of not getting infected (though not by as much as we originally assumed), and they greatly improve the odds of not transmitting the infection to others. When someone says “masks don’t work” they’re either oversimplifying a complicated situation, or they’re flat-out lying.

“My rights” is the wrong question

When vaccines started to become available, we were assured they would be voluntary. I thought that was the right thing to do, as a matter of principle.

But I assumed only a tiny handful of people would refuse them. I had no idea that six months after vaccines became widely available – for free – some states would have less than 50% of their population vaccinated.

Sometimes their reasoning is “there are five lights.” Other times it’s “you can’t make me,” said with all the sincerity of a four-year-old who’s been told not to play in a busy street. Crying “you’re not my mother” ignores the fact that playing in a busy street and refusing the Covid vaccine both mean taking life-threatening risks.

Some people hate government more than they love life.

Why this matters

Unvaccinated people make up the vast majority of Covid-related deaths, and I shed no tears for those who had a choice and refused it. But more importantly, they tie up hospital resources that are needed for cancer patients, heart patients, and others with serious illnesses. That alone is reason enough to strongly encourage vaccination, if not to mandate it.

Beyond that, they’re basing their decisions on lies, on conspiracy theories, and on sheer contrariness.

They’re telling me there are five lights.

And that makes me very, very angry.

What to do?

This is why I’ve resisted writing this post for so long. It’s one thing to describe the problem. It’s another thing to propose a solution.

I’ve told myself to focus on my own life and my own work – I’m doing that as best I can. I go about my life, taking risks I find reasonable and understanding that other people will come to different conclusions. I respect their decisions.

But I cannot respect people who are lying, especially those lying from willful ignorance or from gross stubbornness.

Some say “just ignore them.” How do I do that? How do I ignore people who are telling me I should believe things I know are lies?

Perhaps I haven’t gone deep enough. I’ve always felt like my job is to have one foot firmly in both worlds, to talk and think and write about religion and politics, about science and magic. Perhaps I need to begin withdrawing from the ordinary world.

I could do that… but many don’t have that privilege.

Or perhaps I need to figure out how to live in a world where those who tell big lies – and those who suck up to them – gain more and more power. Perhaps I can learn to channel this anger into something useful.

But I’d really prefer to not be angry so much of the time.

A note to commenters

I didn’t bother to put links to scientific studies and reports in this post because no one who needs such links would be convinced by them. The Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers dismiss any evidence contrary to their opinions, while the conspiracy theorists grab the flimsiest of threads to weave a tapestry of paranoid fantasy.

I’m writing to express my own thoughts – thoughts I imagine are shared by some. Maybe more than some.

If you have helpful suggestions, I want to hear them. If you disagree with me, you’re welcome to list your evidence and reasoning.

But if you tell me there are five lights – if you tell me something that isn’t true, especially if it promotes a conspiracy – I will delete your comment without warning.

There are four lights.

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