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Tom Zirpoli: It shouldn’t take personal experience to learn the threat of COVID-19

The best teacher in life is experience. Look at the many folks who did not think COVID-19 was a real threat, or that a vaccine was necessary and fought the latest mask mandate, have a change of heart as they ponder their choices from a hospital bed. Unfortunately for many of them, this lesson comes too late.

A recent example is Phil Valentine, a 61-year-old radio talk show host in Nashville who questioned whether it was necessary for people to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He told his listeners in December that the odds of dying from Covid-19 were “probably way less than 1 percent.” He played the odds and lost. Unfortunately, many of his listeners in Nashville accepted his misinformation with the same consequences.

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Valentine could have helped his community and country by encouraging people to take care of themselves. Instead, he joined the majority of conservative talk show hosts and did a disservice to them. I wonder how many died by listening to him instead of medical professionals?

Valentine’s brother Mark said that his brother “regrets not being more vehemently pro-vaccine. He recognizes now that him not getting the vaccination has probably caused a bunch of other people not to get vaccinated and that he regrets.” I’m sure hospital workers in Nashville feel the same regret as they struggle to deal with COVID-19 compounded by misinformation and ignorance.

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Four other conservative talk show hosts – Marc Bernier, Dick Farrel, Jimmy DeYoung, and Caleb Wallace – died from the virus during the month of August. All discouraged their listeners from getting vaccinated and wearing masks. Bernier called himself “Mr. Anti-Vax” and told his listeners in Florida that government health officials were “acting like Nazis.” Farrel added to the Florida misinformation by saying vaccines were “promoted by people who lie to you.” In Tennessee, DeYoung warned his listeners that vaccines could be “another form of government control of the people.” Wallace, only 30, leaves behind a pregnant wife and three children in Texas. His wife called him “hard-headed.” Instead of going to see his doctor, his wife reported that he took Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medicine used in horses.

To their credit, Valentine and Farrel tried to convince their listeners to get vaccinated just before they died.

Personal experience can have a profound effect on what people believe about all sorts of issues. I’ve seen it in my career working with children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Conservative folks who previously didn’t believe in government services all of a sudden believe that their recently disabled family member deserves government support. When it comes to getting what their family needs, they become progressive thinkers about the value and important role of government-sponsored programs. Some people seem to believe that good government serves their families. When other people have needs, however, good government becomes “socialism.” I guess it is all about perspective and personal experience.

Anti-vaxxers are the same. They don’t trust the medical establishment until they have a personal encounter with COVID-19. Then they want the best medical care science can provide, experimental or not, to save their lives. Leave them alone, they said. Don’t tell them what to do, they demanded. Then, after they get sick, they expect doctors and nurses to risk their lives to care for them. They didn’t want to do what was necessary to protect themselves – be personally responsible and get vaccinated and wear a mask. Now, sick with COVID-19 and clogging up hospitals, they expect others to take care of them at a great cost to society. Hundreds of doctors and nurses have died taking care of people who refused to take care of themselves.

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Personal experience is a great teacher. It would be great, however, if we could make good decisions without the actual experience because we have the maturity and insight to understand the experience of others. I don’t need to understand that cigarettes cause cancer by smoking and getting cancer. I’ve seen what has happened to family members and friends who smoked. I don’t need to understand the power of a seat belt by flying through a window during a car accident. I’ve seen what happens to people who don’t wear seat belts. We shouldn’t need to experience intubation to understand the power of a vaccine to save our lives.

Hopefully, those who waited too long to see the light will light the way for others to see.

Tom Zirpoli is a professor and program coordinator for the Human Services Management program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster and his column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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