a little r & r

A few weeks ago, I ran across a guest essay in the New York Times by a Margaret Renkl, who lives in Nashville titled “Dolly Parton Tried. But Tennessee Is Squandering a Miracle.” Country singer and philanthropist Dolly Parton recently received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at Vanderbilt University, where her million-dollar donation helped fund research for the vaccine. To inspire others to receive it also she sang a tongue-in-cheek updated version of her iconic song “Jolene:”

Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine
I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate
Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine
‘Cause once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.

The author of the article continues, “Dolly gave it a good, heroic try, but somehow the bonehead politicians running this state managed to overcome even the good will generated by its favorite daughter.”

All of us can identify with Margaret Renkl’s disappointment. The vaccines developed by three well-known pharmaceutical companies brought a sigh of relief to all who could receive it (excluding children under 12 and those with pre-existent medical conditions preventing their vaccination). We could go without masks more often. Churches were able to begin in-person worship. Restaurants and ball games were able to resume on a limited basis. We could return fearlessly to grocery stores and running errands.

But then Covid’s Delta variant happened. More contagious and potentially more deadly than original Covid-19, it is sweeping through the most unvaccinated states in America. Worse yet, 20% of new cases are occurring among children under 10 years of age, exposed to unvaccinated adults. The only other group anywhere nearly justified for hesitating to take the vaccine are blacks, for whom the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was administered without informing participants from 1932 to 1972.

We were glad when the numbers of vaccinations in a matter of weeks increased across America from a few thousand/day to 3 million/day this past Spring. But then in late May to early June more rural parts of the country, mostly in the southern and midwestern states, suddenly became new “hot-spots” for outbreaks with numbers from the Delta variant skyrocketing.

A story from Springfield, Missouri, illustrated what was happening. A 19-year-old who had attended a party, caught Covid from her friends at the party. She brought it home and passed it on to her mother, who caught Covid, became hospitalized, and then died, much to the 19-year old’s grief and remorse. Hospitals in the Kansas City area are reporting surges in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths due to low vaccinated rates in communities where the vaccine was poorly distributed as well as poorly accepted.

All this may sound academic or irrelevant until we have a loved one with Covid. Our son, Peter, lives in the state with the lowest vaccination rate in the country, Alabama, where even the ultra-conservative governor Kay Ivey made national news by blaming the unvaccinated for that state’s surge.

In Spring 2020 Covid was spreading like wildfire, before vaccines came out. Peter became ill with symptoms of terrible fatigue and shortness of breath. He tested negative, but now thinks he was one of the 30% false negatives. René and I felt helpless to do anything to help him, though faculty colleagues at “Bama” helped him out. His illness scared us s—less.

Still the anti-vaccination sentiment persists…enough so, politicians do everything they can in those regions to avoid offending the anti-vaccination crowds. Bill Lee, Tennessee’s governor, got vaccinated against Covid, but refused to be photographed getting the shot—not the flu shot he took proudly and had photographed—but the Covid shot. This was not surprising, Renkl reported. Mr. Lee does not lead. He sticks up one digit to see which way the wind blows. When he learned most of his white rural constituents were against the vaccine in June, state officials returned an allotment of 3 million doses to the federal stockpile, justifying this action by a Tennessee health commissioner saying, “The people who want it have gotten it.”

My take on this is that if the nearly universally popular Tennessee native Dolly Parton can’t convince people in her own state to get vaccinated, we’re in more trouble than we thought.

One conclusion? A metastatic lack of social responsibility for others infuses approximately 30 to 40% of adult Americans. These are adults stuck in adolescence. They never made the full leap into adulthood, which overcomes typical adolescent rejection of authority, except for those authorities who confirm their unexamined prejudices. “Meanwhile,” as comedian Stephen Colbert says, “they have never grown to form their own sense of inner personal authority which is constitutive of a civil and civilizing society.”

Of course, I may be dead wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The good news is that as Delta variant deaths continue to be overwhelmingly found among the unvaccinated, the tide will likely turn toward stronger social responsibility and more people being vaccinated. Already residents of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, one of the worst hot spots in the country, are clandestinely getting the vaccine against the willful denial of any need for the vaccine from their defiant neighbors. It may turn out that the tragic rise in childhood incidents of COVID may well reverse the unvaccinated insistence that vaccines are inherently dangerous when they are not, except among a very small portion of the population with immune-suppressant issues.

As Christians, our task is to be voices of hope, declaring to a world apparently gone mad that God’s ultimate will for life, love, joy, peace, and resurrection shall win the day. We may not see this new day coming very clearly now because we’re too close to the troubles of our time, but it’s coming. Ours is the task of expectant waiting, sort of like December Advents or Good Fridays, awaiting the hope of another Christmas or Easter Day.

In the meantime, let it be well, then, with our souls for our sake, for our nation’s sake and for the world’s sake, that more recalcitrant adults will change their minds and get vaccinated.

The funny thing is that Dolly Parton may have been a prophet all along, but who knew it?