It can be jarring the first time you see it — an angry, sexist meme about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi posted on the Facebook page of one of your favorite relatives, an affable and kindhearted soul you always considered politically moderate with a slight lean to the right.
Even more jarring: Discovering that a cousin you once admired hates and rejects the COVID-19 vaccinations championed by President Joe Biden.
Hearing that two of your all-time favorite musicians, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, are anti-vaxxers who collaborated on an anti-lockdown song at the height of the pandemic — that was jarring, too.
Far worse, however, is learning that a relative has died from COVID-19, and that his death could have been avoided had he not rejected vaccination.
“His death was so unnecessary,” said Dennis Champney, 72, of Glen Arm in Baltimore County, when he spoke with me recently about a male cousin of his who died in mid-June in North Carolina.
His cousin was always conservative, Champney says, but took a hard turn to the extreme right with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. In email exchanges, he expressed hostility toward liberals and immigrants, and at one point declared the pandemic a hoax. Still, Champney kept in touch with him.
“When we were growing up [in New York], he was like a brother to me,” Champney said. “But we parted company sometime after Trump was defeated [in November] and the conversations ended in January.”
I suggested that news of his cousin’s death must have stirred a mix of emotions, perhaps sadness spiked with bafflement.
“Yes, bafflement,” Champney responded in an email. “There is also a sense of anger. I loved the guy, and it feels like he committed suicide. I often sit here and just try to embrace the love we once had for each other. In the next moment I think, ‘What the hell has happened to people’s minds?’
“I knew something dangerous was afoot when a relative told me that [President Barack] Obama had taken all the Bibles from military bases and replaced them with Qurans. I still shake my head at that one. There was no convincing her that wasn’t true. I have avoided any type of conversation about politics with her since then for my mental well being.”
A lot of us have been there, if not dealing with the physical death of a relative or friend, then with the death or suspension of a relationship or friendship.
We have always had to make adjustments to ideological differences in families and social circles. But, since the Trump travesty, such adjustments have been more like estrangements. On both very personal and national levels, the political resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines has inflicted great damage.
Many of us — maybe even most of us — were raised with the quaint idea that the president of the United States should be reasonably intelligent, informed and humane; he should not be a chronic liar, not an outright bigot, not a science denier and certainly not a fomenter of insurrection. And I’ll go further and say that most of us were raised with firm instruction that democracy requires civilized debate and agreed-upon facts, that education is key to personal and societal success, that science saves lives and might even save the planet.
We have spent the last few years scratching our heads that anyone, much less college-educated men and women who serve in Congress, no matter how conservative, could reject any of those solid notions.
But here we are — coming out of the pandemic, haltingly, with a new threat that appears to be causing another rise in cases because millions of Americans, misled and misinformed by Trump-aligned politicians and media figures, continue to reject the vaccines.
More than seven months since the first vaccinations became available, less than half of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s hard to believe that so many Americans still resent and reject the efforts to get the spread of the deadly virus under control.
Maryland, fortunately, has fared better than most states. We presently rank 6th in the percentage of the eligible population that has been fully vaccinated. We’re at 57%, according to the CDC.
Let me draw a direct line to another ranking, this one from WalletHub and based on data from numerous sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau: Maryland is second among states in educational attainment. We’re in the top 10 with Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire, Washington and Minnesota.
Nine of those well-educated states, plus the District of Columbia, are ranked in the top 15 for getting their residents fully vaccinated. (Minnesota is currently ranked just below, at 16th, with a 53% fully-vaxxed rate.)
Clearly, education level has a lot to do with higher vaccination rates. But the decision to get the shots is also influenced by peer pressure and leadership. So thank your teachers, but also be grateful that you live in an atmosphere of rational political leadership and that you enjoy the company of mostly informed, levelheaded friends, neighbors and co-workers who took the COVID-19 threat and remedy seriously.
As for the rest — stubborn distant cousins who refuse the needle, fearmongering politicians, myth-spreading right-wing media and the millions of citizens of 30 states with vaccination rates below 50% — you can feel Dennis Champney’s bafflement. And his sadness. And his anger.