When will America stop buying lies about COVID vaccines? | Mike Kelly

Mike Kelly
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This conversation actually took place. It seemed surreal at the time, almost laughable. But in light of what happened this week in America, it seems entirely normal, not funny at all.

On a Saturday afternoon in March, as I strolled through my New Jersey town of Teaneck — a well-educated centerpiece in one of the richest and most sophisticated corners of America and, therefore, Planet Earth — a woman I did not know stopped me. She was driving an SUV. She was dressed fashionably. She rolled down the window and asked whether I had been vaccinated.

“Yes,” I replied proudly, my face hidden behind a mask. 

She shook her head, then launched into an unprompted sermon about why she did not want to submit to a shot that could save her life.

“I’m afraid the government will insert a microchip into my body and track my movements,” she said.

FEMA is providing vaccines this week and for the next five weeks to vaccinate people in Paterson, Prospect Park and Passaic. Carlos Castro, of Passaic, gets his first vaccine shot at Dr. Hani Awadallah School in Paterson on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

I started to chuckle, thinking this might be some sort of weird joke. But I stopped myself. This woman was serious in her baffling embrace of a falsehood. As I tried to explain that no microchips are in the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, she rolled up her window and drove away.

As America would soon learn, this woman was not alone in her undying faith in fakery.

'COVID-19 on steroids'

This week we discovered that we may be too late to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The new variant — delta — is described as “COVID-19 on steroids.”  And yet, while scientists tell us that our vaccines are fully capable of controlling the delta mutation of the virus, America still faces a sickening problem: four of every 10 adults refuse to get the shot.

The problem in battling the coronavirus pandemic is not the supply of vaccines or needles or even health care professionals willing to stick those needles in our biceps. We have plenty. 

The problem is misinformation.

Far too many of us falsely believe that the vaccine causes infertility, that it alters DNA, that it "magnetizes" you, that it doesn’t work, that it contains microchips for “Big Brother” government officials to monitor everyone’s private comings and goings. 

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Those are just a few of the vaccine “myths.” And the result of this whirlpool of distortion?

Let’s start with death. We learned this week that the coronavirus caused overall life expectancy in America to fall by nearly a year and a half, from 77.8 years to 77.3 years. It was the steepest decline since World War II when the Nazis and Japanese were killing tens of thousands of Americans each year.

We also watched an entirely scary but nonetheless understandable one-day drop in the stock market — a warning sign that Wall Street investors are nervous about the rising tide of COVID cases that could put a damper on the nation’s much-needed economic rebooting.

Valerie Gunn, of Ringwood, receives the Modena vaccine from Giavanna DeSimone, a physician extender, at the Ramapough Lenape Community Center. The members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation of Bergen County will receive the COVID-19 vaccine at distribution rollout in Mahwah, N.J. on Friday March 19, 2021. This will be the first of three clinics offered to the Ramapough Lenape Nation, easing vaccine access and delivery to this underserved population.

Our cities are now home to far too many empty office buildings. Our landlord-tenant courts are preparing for a flood of eviction cases because people are running out of money for rent. Too many restaurants and stores are on life support — or already dead. Cash strapped hospitals worry they may soon be awash in new cases and a rising body count of COVID-related deaths. Many small, private, non-elite colleges that don’t have the luxury of billion-dollar endowments wonder if they will have to close their doors. No less than the Wall Street Journal editorial page raised a surrender flag, declaring that “We’ll Always Have COVID.” In New Jersey and across the nation, we can't even agree on whether to require "vaccine passports" for people to enter public spaces such as theaters, groceries and libraries. 

And that’s just a hint of what we are facing.

We need to stop lying

America has the means to stop this slide into chaos. Our most reputable scientists and physicians tell us — unequivocally — that vaccines can stop this pandemic in its tracks. But far too many of us don’t believe the experts. Far too many of us trust quacks.

Our nation is dying because we refuse to come together. We can’t even agree on how bad the problem is — not yet anyway.

This columnist has written much about the pandemic. But this week, I’m going to say something I’ve never said before.

We need the equivalent of a national intervention. First, however, we need to start behaving like intelligent adults.

We need to stop fighting.

We need to stop lying.

We need to stop the torrent of balderdash that passes for journalism on Fox and other conservative television broadcasts and websites. We need our social media platforms – notably Facebook – to end their see-no-evil strategy of allowing lies to pass as free expression. America's information revolution has become a digital version of Russian roulette. We're drowning in our so-called freedom and technology. 

It’s an understatement to point out that this is a critical moment for our nation. More than 600,000 of us have died in just 18 months — a death toll that far exceeds all U.S. combat deaths in World War I, World War II and in the Korean, Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq conflicts.

Remember the early days of March, April and May of last year?

The desperately sick poured into our hospital emergency rooms, but doctors and nurses had little idea what to do. Many health workers could not even find enough protective gowns, gloves and masks. 

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Our talented scientists quickly developed medical balms — so-called COVID “cocktails” — which saved countless lives, including former President Donald Trump’s. We also found plenty of masks, gowns and goggles. 

And now we have a potent vaccine, produced in less than a year and nearly 100% effective. Even the early polio and smallpox vaccines were not this good.

But unlike those other epidemics, our doctors and nurses now face another problem. There is no vaccine, no protective mask or gown or set of goggles that can stop the pandemic of misinformation that has been a staple of Fox News and far too many far-right news sites and social media platforms.

The U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, declared this week that misinformation has become a “serious threat to public health.” 

A recent study by the left-leaning group, Media Matters for America, found that nearly half of the 129 Fox news segments on the vaccines during a recent two-week period included suggestions that the vaccination drive was “coercive” or that it represented government overreach. More than a third of the news segments also reported that the vaccines were unnecessary in combatting the coronavirus or dangerous.

Two prominent Fox stars — Sean Hannity and Steve Doocy — emerged this week with surprise pleas to viewers to get vaccinated. 

“Please take COVID seriously – I can’t say it enough. Enough people have died, We don't need any more death,” Hannity said during his evening program. “I believe in the science of vaccination.”

I believe in conversion, redemption and forgiveness. But how can Hannity and Doocy erase their 18-month assault on truth that they both encouraged? Words matter. Forgiveness should come with a change in behavior.   

The same is true with Facebook. President Joe Biden may have stepped over a line of political decorum when he claimed that the social media site’s refusal to monitor false information was “killing” people. But Biden, who tried to temper his criticism, was not far off the mark.  

Facebook cannot simply operate an informational pipeline. Doesn’t it have a responsibility to make sure that its pipeline does not pollute the nation with toxic untruths?

Studies by the Reboot Foundation, a research institution that promotes critical thinking in education, found that social media is awash in falsehoods.

“The more people spend time on social media the more likely they were to believe coronavirus myths,” Reboot’s president, Helen Lee Bouygues, said in a phone interview with me from her home in Paris.

Bouygues, who was raised in Boston, educated at Princeton and Harvard and writes a column in Forbes magazine, believes that the rapid spread of a deadly virus in a world where social media platforms mix falsehoods and conspiracy theories with truth has become a “toxic cocktail.”

“Most people believe they are good at identifying fake news when in reality they are not,” she said. “The more we researched this we concluded that social media is one of the biggest problems.”

'You don't know what you are talking about'

The tide of misinformation even rolled into a Congressional hearing this week. No surprise there. 

During a hearing, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and physician who trades in conspiracies, again promoted a false story that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief medical adviser of knowingly allowing a Chinese lab to create the COVID-19 virus.

"Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about,” Fauci said.

Paul countered that Fauci was lying. Fauci shot back: “If anyone is lying here, senator, it is you.”

It was gripping TV. All the networks carried the rhetorical joust. But the clash between Paul and Fauci also reminded us – again – that our nation can’t even agree on basic facts with the COVID-19 pandemic.

America is not just fighting a virus. In some ways, it is fighting for its life as a society that respects truth.

It’s time we faced the facts about the coronavirus – and its new variants. 

But first we have to face ourselves.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @mikekellycolumn 

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