“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying” 

You’ve probably seen the viral video where spring-breaker Brady Sluder says this. His peers on the beach expressed similar sentiments: that the coronavirus crisis is overblown and the government should not stop people from having fun.

COVID-19 emerged in a food market in China last year and quickly spread across the world. Deaths continue to rise and the novel coronavirus has been declared a global health emergency. At the time of this article’s writing, there are nearly 1.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world and the White House predicts anywhere between 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the US from the disease in total.

After facing intense backlash online, Sluder has apologized for the way he behaved in the video, made it clear that he understands the responsibility to protect others, and cautioned everyone to follow social distancing protocols. 

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I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. I’ve failed, I’ve let down, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I can’t apologize enough to the people i’ve offended and the lives I’ve insulted. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, or pity. I want to use this as motivation to become a better person, a better son, a better friend, and a better citizen. Listen to your communities and do as health officials say. Life is precious. Don’t be arrogant and think you’re invincible like myself. I’ve learned from these trying times and I’ve felt the repercussions to the fullest. Unfortunately, simply apologizing doesn’t justify my behavior. I’m simply owning up to my mistakes and taking full responsibility for my actions. Thank you for your time, and stay safe everyone. ❤️

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But his original sentiments are far from solitary; during the initial stages of the outbreak in America, people organised ‘coronavirus parties’, coughed in grocery stores as a prank, and recorded videos of themselves licking things for an Instagram challenge. Religious gatherings in defiance of common sense distancing measures also continued: a Church congregation in South Korea caused an epidemic in the country, and a religious convention in Pakistan spread the disease all over the country.  

This type of carelessness reminds me of another group of people who put public health at risk by dismissing the concerns and advice of experts: anti-vaxxers.

Because of a growing distrust in vaccines, diseases that were thought to be nearly eradicated in the first world are making a comeback. In 2014, measles reached a 20-year high in the United States with 90% of cases among those who were not vaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown. Vaccine-preventable diseases like pertussis have re-appeared in areas with low vaccination rates. And of the many children who died from the flu in the US in 2013, 90% were not vaccinated

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the debate around vaccinations cause us to confront questions of public responsibility. 

Like the college students partying on beaches, anti-vaxxers often insist that the government should not be telling them what to do. The anger around people ignoring social distancing guidelines – from government officials, overworked hospital staff, and the general public – has shown us that this shallow understanding of ‘freedom’ doesn’t always work. Most people in democratic societies will generally agree that the government shouldn’t be interfering in anyone’s personal life but when it comes to public health, the stakes are different. 

The philosophy behind herd immunity is not so different from that behind social distancing measures like lock-downs: for the health of the collective, the individual must make certain sacrifices. 

I think most of us would prefer not to be poked by needles from a young age, just like most of us would prefer to be allowed to freely leave our houses. But to end the chain of transmission of a disease, certain sacrifices have to be made. 

Some people are simply not willing to make these sacrifices. Many media reports and studies have pointed out what this paper in the American Journal of Public Health notes: “higher median household income and higher percentage of White race in the population…significantly predicted higher percentages of students with PBEs [Personal Belief Exemptions (to vaccinations)]” in parts of the US. Translation: White people who are financially well-off are comparatively more likely than other swaths of the US population to be anti-vaxxers. This may be because they feel that they have the resources to invest in medication and hospital visits if their child contracts a vaccine-preventable disease.

This sort of thinking vastly underestimates the damage that many diseases that we come to think of a benign can do, but it also shows a sort of selfishness that COVID-19 has laid bare. As health professionals all over the world are telling the general population right now, you must make decisions with others in mind. It is not just you but the immunocompromised, the elderly, and the impoverished that you need to care about. 

A peevish disregard for the health of others connects the anti-science crowd that scorns both vaccination and social distancing. The Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican who once bragged that all six of his children were not vaccinated, recently faced criticism online when he tweeted a picture of himself (now deleted) in a crowded food hall and openly celebrated his flouting of social distancing guidelines. 

Not all those opposed to vaccines and distrustful of guidelines from WHO and the CDC are this dude, of course. Medicine has a long history of racism and sexism that still determines the kind of care communities on the margins receive; this causes understandable caution and fear among some people. In addition, many skeptics are rightfully wary of the pharmaceutical industry and the government. But skeptics in search of the truth, and not conspiracies to support their pre-existing beliefs, also apply this distrustful attitude towards leaders of the anti-science crowd and their financial ties to alternative medicine and usually find their way back to vaccines. 

This pandemic has brought us face-to-face with what a world without vaccines could look like as well as helping us confront, in a real way, how selfish the arguments of many anti-vaxxers actually are. There are no excuses now: all of us, include anti-vaxxers, must emerge from this pandemic with a greater sense of social responsibility. 

  • Saira Mahmood is currently a student of English at the University of Karachi. Her first love is reading, though she has been writing to make sense of the world for a long time. Saira is deeply interested in amplifying the uncensored voices and stories of Muslim women — with all the intricacies of gender, faith, mental health, sexuality, and the like preserved.