Delta variant is stoking anger at the unvaccinated. It should.
There’s an inflatable punchable clown in my online shopping cart. It’s been there since mid-June, when my therapist recommended physically (but safely) channeling my newfound anger. She also suggested screaming into a pillow. I ultimately decided the clown was one step too far, at least in terms of household clutter. I can appreciate a good scream, but enjoy it most at sporting events and concerts. I opted instead for a nightly meditation for coping with anger.
At the time, my irritability was an unexpected revelation of post-vaccine life. After months of using emotional numbness as a defense against the unpredictability of a pandemic, it finally felt safe to feel again. I was furious about losing time with loved ones and constantly having to make risk assessments to protect my two young, unvaccinated children. The meditation helped put my anger into perspective, and soon it faded.
Then the delta variant of the coronavirus began making urgent headlines. I stayed mostly calm until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in late July that vaccinated people can infect others who’ve been immunized. The desperate rage came on quick. Everything I thought was firmly in hand — unmasked visits from high-risk grandparents, relatively carefree hangouts with vaccinated friends, and a low-risk start to the school year — slipped from my grasp.
Now a new set of headlines proclaim that vaccinated people’s anger is unhelpful and will backfire. Public health experts recently told USA Today “that anger is understandable, widespread and unproductive.” But if there’s one thing my meditation on the Ten Percent Happier app taught me, it’s that anger is a messenger. It can tell you when a loved one is in danger, when your boundaries have been violated, when your needs are unmet. The trick is neither suppressing that frustration nor being carried away by it. Achieving this balance often requires exhausting mental and emotional work to recognize and check your worst impulses.
The notion that the vaccinated should remain silent or subdued to spare injury to someone else’s pride isn’t helpful either.
After 18 months of trying to follow the rules and stay positive, it’s no surprise that people who sacrificed as much as they could before vaccinations were available, then lined up for immunization, are now irate. Close to 60 percent of Americans eligible for vaccination have gotten their shots. Too many have chosen a different path. Simply put, we’d be seeing fewer infections, hospitalizations, and deaths now if more people in the U.S. were vaccinated.
The argument against letting the vaccinated express their outrage seems to hinge on the possibility that doing so will alienate people who’ve refused so far to get jabbed. Indeed, unleashing anger in the form of blame and shame can destroy relationships, erode trust, and lead to painful regret. Yet, the notion that the vaccinated should remain silent or subdued to spare injury to someone else’s pride isn’t helpful either. Delta supercharged people’s anger. Instead of telling them to temper their feelings, we should take their rage seriously.
Public health experts inclined to lecture should reconsider given how much the most responsive and cooperative Americans have been asked to shoulder. Prior to widespread vaccination, many followed safety guidelines around masking and distancing. They helped flatten the curve. They educated their children at home or quit jobs that were unsafe for their families. People willing to act responsibly during the pandemic have exercised immense physical and psychological discipline while they watched others burn masks, throw parties, and circulate conspiracy theories. Now we’re being asked to dig deeper, bottle up our anger, and find graciousness where only exasperation and grief exist.
Conspiracy theories are a mental health crisis
Healthcare workers, in particular, seem increasingly distraught and furious. They’re once again confronting full intensive care units, intubating otherwise healthy 20-somethings, and trying to notify a next of kin only to realize an entire household has been brought down by COVID-19. As one ICU nurse told NPR, “I can’t explain the feeling of defeat when you pour everything into a patient and it’s not enough,” she said. “And then to know that they could’ve gotten vaccinated and it could’ve made a difference.” No burden could be greater in this fight than to watch people die avoidable deaths.
Acknowledging this reality isn’t meant to justify generalizations about who’s unvaccinated and why, lumping them all into a single maligned group. We can be angry and note that vaccine access is critical but not guaranteed for every community, that unvaccinated households are more likely to be food insecure and make less than $75,000 a year, that historic and institutional medical racism has betrayed countless people who might otherwise leap at the chance for protection against COVID-19.
We can also say, defiantly: It didn’t have to be like this. With more widespread vaccination, we might not be nervously sending our children to school with infection rates, in some places, as high or higher than during pre-vaccination peaks. People wouldn’t be anxiously weighing whether to hold a once-postponed wedding or go on that long-planned trip to visit relatives for the first time since 2020. We wouldn’t have to watch again as our fellow Americans fall ill and die.
The anger may be selfish at times, but it’s also a normal response to the circumstances. When you snatch hope from someone and replace it with yet more grief and trauma, they will be angry. When an expert says this anger is unproductive, they’re not hearing its message. People are grieving for normalcy that was only an illusion. They know their loved ones, and themselves, are less safe. They deserve to be heard.
Hearing them means alleviating the pressure on the vaccinated to hold this fragile country together.
Hearing them means alleviating the pressure on the vaccinated to hold this fragile country together. Delta’s contagiousness has insured that the unvaccinated can no longer rely on the protection afforded to their communities by widespread immunization. Still, those who’ve avoided getting their shots must reckon with their role in slowing progress toward herd immunity. We need carefully instituted mask and vaccine mandates that push the hesitant or resistant to take meaningful responsibility for our collective health and well-being.
Recent vaccine mandates issued, planned, or recommended for U.S. military troops, federal workers, healthcare workers, teachers, and college students are a good start. Data show that mandates are effective, whether they require proof of vaccination or regular testing for someone who is unvaccinated. Mandates for the vaccines may also be less controversial once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves them. Programs like the “Key to NYC Pass,” which will make access to indoor activities like gyms, restaurants, and performances contingent on vaccination, also puts appropriate pressure on the unvaccinated to reevaluate their choices. Similarly, we need more employers and brands, like the NFL and United Airlines, to set clear expectations for their employees: Get vaccinated or pay the price, either in financial penalties or your job.
Of course, mandates should be implemented alongside reasonable and legal exceptions and effective programs that increase access to vaccines and provide people with social and economic support. That can include setting up clinics in community and neighborhood settings, providing paid time off and childcare for workers and parents worried about severe side effects, and culturally responsive approaches to skeptics who cite medical racism as their reason for avoiding the vaccine. What’s no longer possible is expecting the vaccinated, many of whom have already given up a lot while others flouted the rules, to coddle the unvaccinated. Asking the vaccinated to patiently watch as public health officials, employers, and companies tiptoe around the unvaccinated is no longer acceptable.
While the vaccinated are probably unlikely to withhold future cooperation as punishment for being scolded or silenced, they’ll still feel resentment that could continue dividing us all. If public health officials and experts want the vaccinated to surrender their anger and keep marching forward, they need to stop expecting them to sacrifice with a smile on their face and instead start asking more of the unvaccinated.