Getting Vaccinated Is Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

There’s an old cliche local heroes like to trot out when they’re interviewed on the local news: “I just did what anyone would do.” It’s what you say when you happen to be at the right place at the right time and have the opportunity to help someone else, perhaps even at personal risk. A car barrels down the street, the driver isn’t paying attention and some steel-nerved bystander pulls a child out of the way. Or a child falls from a windowsill and a sharp-eyed pedestrian scoops her up before she hits the pavement. Everyone on the street applauds. The news cameras show up. And our hero assures us all that we would have done the same thing.

Everyone else likes to think so, at least. Most of us will never get the chance to prove it, but we trust that our courage would overcome our fear and our wits would win over paralysis. In this framing, risking your safety to save someone else is pure instinct, part of human nature. We’re hardwired to look out for each other and, given the opportunity to be a hero, would leap at the chance.

Maybe so.

There is a runaway truck barreling down our streets right now. In the first week of July, there were 12,000 child cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. By the first week of August, there were 96,000. The Washington Post determined that 1,785 children were hospitalized with either suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases last week. Nearly 250 of those were in Florida, which leads the country in child hospitalizations cases of the disease.

As nearly everyone knows, children rarely die of COVID-19. But rarely isn’t never. Children do die. Not many, but some. In Mississippi, an eighth grade girl died less than 24 hours after she was diagnosed. Her name was Mkayla Robinson. She was 13 years old, the fifth child in Mississippi to die from the disease.

In Tallahassee, a child under the age of five died from COVID earlier this month. So far, eight children under the age of 16 have died of the disease in Florida.

Meanwhile, in Texas, a judge named Clay Jenkins put it grim terms: “In Dallas, we have zero ICU beds left for children …Your child will wait for another child to die.”

Kids aren’t more susceptible to Delta than they were to any of the variant’s predecessors, as far as experts can tell. But as COVID surges, more kids are going to be exposed to it, whether at home or school. And as more kids are exposed, more cases are going to defy the odds and become serious. And as more cases become serious, more are going to end in tragedy. Not many. But some.

We have a few ways of preventing these horrors. The most effective one is the vaccine, the result of a remarkable and unprecedented global effort to halt this pandemic in its tracks. The mRNA vaccine is a scientific marvel that teaches your body how to fight COVID-19. As writer Meg Conley put it, “Unlike previous vaccine breakthroughs, like the polio vaccine, there is no inactive virus in the Covid vaccines. The mRNA vaccine is not an invasion, it’s an education.”

Is it a perfect education? No. We know there are breakthrough cases, and those cases can occasionally lead to hospitalizations. It’s rare, but it happens. This is not unexpected, as there have always been breakthrough cases with vaccines. In my own state of Tennessee, 99.7 percent of COVID cases are among the not fully vaccinated. This is more or less on par with the breakthrough rate in other states.

None of the approved COVID-19 vaccines clocked 100 percent effectiveness, but a vaccine that’s 90 percent effective is more than good enough to keep COVID at bay. If enough people are willing to get it, that is.

But the problem in the U.S. is that not enough people have been willing. We are throwing millions of viable vaccines away because millions of Americans don’t want them. You hear all sorts of reasons for this, and some of them are understandable. The CDC’s guidance has occasionally been confused around things like mask mandates. America has an ugly history when it comes to dealing with marginalized communities and medical studies.

But it seems like most of the hesitation stems from viral Instagram stories, Tiktok videos and Facebook memes. Getting vaccinated is seen as taking a political stance, even though President Joe Biden’s vaccine rollout is only finishing what former President Donald Trump started. Apocryphal horror stories about vaccine side effects flourish online, while others insist that the vaccine is a tool of oppression.

And amid this skepticism, around 30 percent of Americans who are eligible to get a vaccine refuse to get one, preferring to take their chances with COVID-19. Most of them will be fine, even if they come down with a case of COVID. Most of their kids will fine too. Most.

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This is the truck barreling down our streets right now, a truck with a real, as yet undetermined body count attached to it. And in this case, the hero who runs into the street to push a child to safety is the one who gets vaccinated, adding one more inoculation to our social barrier, one more free ICU bed in the hospital, one more person who thought of the wellbeing of others ahead of their own.

I’ve been thinking about the miracles of Jesus lately. Of the 37 recorded in the New Testament, 27 involve healing sick people. I wonder why that is. There are no shortage of signs and wonders Jesus could have done. Other ancient stories are full of gods turning into animals or defeating monsters. Jesus made people’s bodies better.

Maybe that’s why we still ask him to do the same thing today. No prayer feels more immediate and desperate than a prayer for healing. So many of us spent 2020 praying for an end to this disease. I do not think it is presumptuous to call the vaccine an answer to prayer. Or, more specifically, to call the people who get the vaccine an answer to that prayer. By getting it, we are very literally loving our neighbors as ourselves, answering a prayer they can’t answer alone.

Will your personal decision to get the vaccine save lives? Maybe. Not many. Some.

Is the possibility that you’ll save a life worth it?

There will be no cheering crowds or news cameras. You will probably not get to look into the face of the person or people whose life you save. But that doesn’t make them any less real, their little life any less beautiful. Nor does it make your actions to protect them any less heroic.

You are only doing what anyone else would do.

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