We were almost there.
That’s the most frustrating thing about the most recent announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that even those who are fully vaccinated against the disease should return to wearing masks indoors in cities that are COVID-19 hot spots. It was only two months ago the CDC said we could put our masks away.
We were this close to getting this thing under control, to seeing one another smile, to cookouts, to visiting grandpa, to signing off Zoom, to normal. Now we see it all slipping away as inexorably as the tide going out. We return to masking up, hiding our faces like bank robbers.
Some of us are vexed with the CDC over its shifting guidelines, but you won’t get an amen from this corner. Scientists have to follow science, and if this is where the science leads, so be it. No, if you’re looking to apportion blame, blame the delta variant. And blame, too, those people who refused to wear masks or be vaccinated, and the public officials who seconded them. Blame the ones who said these were matters of “personal choice.” As if personal choice supersedes public interest.
And how often have we seen news stories about those same people, newly repentant and freshly contrite, their minds changed after coming nose to nose with their own mortality, courtesy of COVID?
“I thought it was a joke,” an Arkansas man named Lamonte Boyd recently told CBS News.
“I wish I could go back in time,” a Missouri man named Louie Michael told a local Fox affiliate.
“Having seen this up close and personal I’d encourage all of you to put politics and other concerns aside and get it,” a man named Mark Valentine declared on Facebook. Like his brother, Phil, a conservative radio host and vaccine skeptic in Tennessee, Mark was unvaccinated. At this writing, Phil is on a ventilator in critical condition, and Mark has changed his mind.
There is an old Southern expression: A hard head makes a soft behind. Translation: Your stubborn defiance will get you spanked.
Well, those people have been well and truly spanked. But the rest of us are being spanked, too. Falling infection numbers have hooked a U-turn. We face the prospect of returning to isolation, to ordering in and watching talk shows produced in spare rooms. One feels like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part 3” — “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
As has often been noted in this space, human beings are not wired to change their minds. To the contrary, 40 years of behavioral-science research tells us that when bad information gets stuck in human brains, it tends to stay there.
But the bad information now impeding vaccinations — that is, they contain tracking devices, they were manufactured too quickly, it’s all a government hoax — is a literal matter of life and death. So let’s stop asking nicely. Let’s impose coercive measures. Just as children can’t go to school without proof of vaccination, adults shouldn’t be able to bank, shop or enter public gatherings without same.
Yes, that would be a drastic step. It would likely lead to a repeat of last year’s anti-mask unrest. Remember the siege of the Michigan statehouse? Remember the confrontations in restaurants and stores? It was not pleasant, and this go-round would likely be worse. But what other option do we have?
You do not endanger the lives of the many to humor the misconceptions of the few. They can’t or won’t change their minds. It’s time to recognize that.
And do it for them.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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