• Gabriele Contessa

The Deaths of Covid Skeptics Are Not Morality Tales



As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed last week, I came across an article in The Guardian with the headline ‘California prosecutor who campaigned against vaccines mandates dies of Covid.’ Since British newspapers do not typically cover the deaths of Californian deputy district attorneys and given that the unusually long headline spotlights this prosecutor’s political advocacy, it is safe to assume that the reason why The Guardian decided that the death of Kelly Ernby was newsworthy for its readers is that Ernby was a vocal vaccine skeptic. While neither the headline nor the article openly condemned Ernby’s opinions about Covid vaccines or her decision not to get vaccinated, the very fact that The Guardian decided to cover Ernby’s death as it did seems to turn the news of her passing into a morality tale whose morals the readers are left to draw. And, whatever the intentions behind that headline were, many drew the worst kind of conclusion. Thousands of people on Facebook reacted to The Guardian’s post with a “laugh” reaction, as if Ernby’s death was the punchline to a macabre joke.


Unfortunately, this sort of coverage is far from exceptional. In fact, Covid morality tales seem to have become the norm for publications that typically enjoy a reputation for high journalistic standards. Other reputable news outlets, such as CBS News, ran stories about Ernby’s death with headlines similar to The Guardian’s and The Los Angeles Times even ran a column by Michael Hiltzik under the title ‘Mocking anti-vaxxers’ COVID deaths is ghoulish, yes—but may be necessary.’ In that column Hiltzik claims that ‘those who have deliberately flouted sober medical advice by refusing a vaccine known to reduce the risk of serious disease from the virus, including the risk to others, and end up in the hospital or the grave can be viewed as receiving their just deserts’ and that ‘mockery is not necessarily the wrong reaction to those who publicly mocked anti-COVID measures and encouraged others to follow suit, before they perished of the disease the dangers of which they belittled.’ Hiltzik concludes that ‘there may be no other way to make sure that the lessons of these teachable moments are heard.’


[C]ovid morality tales are not only unlikely to persuade Covid skeptics, but they are actually likely to radicalize the more moderate among them and further contribute to the already rampant social and political polarization on this issue.

Moreover, the coverage of Ernby’s death is not an isolated incident. The deaths of other prominent Covid skeptics have also generated their fair share of Covid morality tales from reputable news sources. For example, when former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain died last year, the Reuters headline read ‘Herman Cain, ex-presidential candidate who refused to wear mask, dies after Covid-19 diagnosis.’ In Cain’s case, the subtext to the stories covering his death was so clear that Slate even published an opinion piece under the revealing title ‘The Real Lesson of Herman Cain’s Death', as if it is a given that we should draw a lesson from his death, but it is unclear which lesson. Things are even worse if one ventures into less reputable corners of the internet, such as the website sorryantivaxxer.com, where the deaths of Covid skeptics are openly mocked.


Should we use the deaths of Covid skeptics as teachable moments? On some ethical views, the answer to this question is a clear and resounding ‘No!’. Immanuel Kant, for one, urged us to always treat other persons as ends in themselves and never to treat them merely as means. Covid morality tales clearly contravene this moral principle, as they use the death of a fellow human being as a means to some other end.


Of course, not everyone agrees with Kant on this. Some would argue that using the deaths of Covid skeptics as morality tales is morally permissible if doing so results in predominantly good consequences. But is this actually the case? On the most generous interpretation, Covid morality tales are supposed to serve as a wake-up call for Covid skeptics. However, it is unlikely that they can actually achieve this goal. In fact, if anything, they might be counterproductive. To see why, just think how you would feel if you came across an antivaxx Facebook group in which users post stories about the death of fully vaccinated people that suggested that being vaccinated did not save their lives and thousands of users used the “laugh” reaction to react to the posts. I doubt it would make you rethink your attitude towards vaccines. In fact, it is more likely that it would anger you and make you think that those on the “other side” are callous and inhumane. By the same token, Covid morality tales are not only unlikely to persuade Covid skeptics, but they are actually likely to radicalize the more moderate among them and further contribute to the already rampant social and political polarization on this issue.


Moreover, Covid morality tales seem to promote problematic moral attitudes towards Covid skeptics. For one thing, they encourage a morally problematic form of victim-blaming. While we may criticize Covid skeptics for their beliefs or their decisions, it is unclear that we should blame them for the misfortunes that result from those decisions. After all, rock climbers also make risky choices voluntarily, but we do not typically blame (let alone ridicule) people who die in rock-climbing accidents for their deaths. For another thing, the fact that so many reacted to the news of Ernby’s death with a “laugh” shows that Covid morality tales provide the readers with an opportunity to dehumanize Covid skeptics, which is particularly worrisome considering that emotions are already running high due to the pandemic and that some are already arguing that it is morally permissible to withhold treatment from those who are not vaccinated.


[C]ovid morality tales promote the wrong message about vaccines and other public health measures, one that is likely to play in the hand of those who are intent on promoting skepticism about them.

Finally, Covid morality tales promote the wrong message about vaccines and other public health measures, one that is likely to play in the hand of those who are intent on promoting skepticism about them. Covid morality tales seem to imply that, had the Covid skeptic been more cautious, they wouldn’t have died. However, even in the case of vaccines, we cannot know for sure that this is true. While Covid vaccines reduce the risk of dying by Covid very significantly, they do not eliminate it completely and suggesting otherwise, as Covid morality tales do, can backfire. We tend to think of causation in deterministic terms, but most real-world causation is probabilistic. For example, while smoking causes lung cancer, it only does so probabilistically and, despite what some smokers like to think, the fact that their chain-smoking uncle lived a long and healthy life does not prove that smoking does not cause lung cancer. Covid morality tales promote a deterministic view of the efficacy of vaccines that lends itself to the same sort of fallacy. Since, unfortunately, even people who are fully vaccinated sometimes die of Covid (albeit much more rarely than people who are not), vaccine skeptics might be tempted to use their deaths to engage in the same sort of fallacious deterministic reasoning and conclude that vaccines are not effective after all. Messages about vaccines must be consistent and not misleading.


Since the beginning of the pandemic, much of the public discourse about Covid has been subtly moralized. People who took certain (supposed) precautions were praised and people who did not were blamed even when there was little evidence that the (supposed) precautions were actually effective. However, the sad reality is that Covid is an unforgiving disease and that, no matter how many precautions we take, we cannot protect ourselves and our loved ones from it completely. Of course, the single most significant action each of us can take to try to avoid the worse outcomes is getting vaccinated and it is very unfortunate that, even in countries in which vaccines are widely available, a non-negligible percentage of the eligible population is still unvaccinated. However, their reasons are varied and complex and blaming Covid skeptics for their misfortunes is not an effective approach to persuade them to get vaccinated.


Of course, none of the above means that we should not criticize Ernby’s beliefs, her decisions, or, even more so, her public advocacy against vaccines. Ernby’s death does not shield her ideas, decision, or political advocacy from criticism. But, to blame her for her death or, worse, to ridicule it is a step that we should collectively refuse to take. To persuade the skeptics, we need more understanding and compassion, not mockery and hostility.


References

Keohane, R. O., Lane, M., & Oppenheimer, M. (2014). The Ethics of Scientific Communication Under Uncertainty. Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 13(4), 343–368. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470594X14538570


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.