Plenty of highly produced primetime segments attempting to hammer home the ugly reality of COVID-19 have aired over the past year and a half. Plenty of public officials have pleaded, and reasoned and asked nicely. We’ve heard from people who, through no fault of their own, have suffered COVID-related catastrophe due to the actions of others. We’ve heard from people who, completely because of their own negligence, have suffered the effects of COVID and wish they could undo it. There is a vaccine for the disease widely available, at no cost to anybody living in this country who chooses to get it. And yet, the pandemic persists. Perhaps it’s time for some new public messaging.
We can—and should—go further. It’s time for public health vaccine messaging to focus less on what getting jabbed means for society, and more on what not getting vaccinated can mean for individuals. In other words, it’s time to get disgusting. Anti-smoking campaigns and anti-drug campaigns have used upsetting medical descriptions and imagery in public service announcements. Why not go there with COVID?
On the Reddit forum r/nursing, there are no reporters in full hair and makeup standing with a hospital in the background; the real horror of COVID is in clear, grotesque focus. Nurses trade stories of COVID patients with maggots in their sinus cavities, of something called “COVID poop” which apparently causes sores for some patients on ventilators, of unvaccinated COVID-positive pregnant women who go into labor prematurely while intubated and die before they meet their infants—who now have to spend time in the NICU for a completely preventable reason.
Anecdotes of the horrors of COVID have analogs in the world of medical journals. Researchers have found that men who have had COVID are six times more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction. Research has shown that many COVID patients who end up intubated also end up suffering fungal infections. A growing body of evidence links even less severe COVID infection to long-term cognitive impairment. COVID has been associated with clotting disorders, and clotting disorders significantly increase a woman’s risk of miscarriage and trouble conceiving. COVID-19 renders many sufferers disabled in the long term in a country with a social safety net that is full of holes, something that disability advocates have been sounding the alarm on for months.
And why isn’t the cost of COVID being shouted from the rooftops? The average COVID hospital stay costs somewhere between $17,000 and $20,000. That’s about twice as much as the average American household has in savings. For more on how fucked COVID sufferers’ families are financially, go to GoFundMe and search for “COVID,” and then prepare to need a stiff drink afterward.
Stories like those found in r/nursing and in medical research into COVID should be on billboards in places with highly vaccine-hesitant populations. This information should be conveyed in public service announcements that air during professional sporting events and prime-time TV. It should be on the sides of buses and in videos that play before streaming content:
There’s a good chance that COVID could render you infertile. COVID could make it difficult to achieve sexual arousal. Life-saving COVID treatment could lead to your body rotting while you’re still alive. COVID can break your brain. COVID can make it impossible to climb a flight of stairs without getting winded. COVID can disable you. COVID can strap your family with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This is the ugly truth within the 98% survival rate; this is what happens to survivors. Are you willing to risk all of these outcomes?
Public health officials should use this vaccine inflection point as an opportunity to jiu jitsu American selfishness into national self-preservation. The Biden administration’s messaging arm needs to understand that selling the vaccine effort like it’s the Second World War and we’re all growing Victory Gardens isn’t going to work. At least, not for the remaining vaccine holdouts.
The push for vaccines still uses language that is too sanitized from the reality of COVID. Lots of “togethers” and “we’s” and appeals to decency, like this country hasn’t spent the last year and a half proving that the people who are keeping the pandemic alive don’t care about anybody but themselves. A small but very loud portion of the population even seems to get off on hurting other people.
To its credit, the administration has abandoned some of the “carrot” promises of vaccinating (“If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask! Fourth of July parties for everybody!”) for a more “stick” approach (“If you’re not vaccinated, you have to get tested every week or lose your job”). And some people have been convinced to get the vaccine by both administration tacks. But not enough.
Primetime news segments about a health-care system “on the brink” have been partially effective in conveying the exhaustion of health-care workers are feeling due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the anguish of families of COVID patients, but they haven’t been effective in forcing a certain ilk to care—because you can’t force people to care about others.
It’s past time to get personal and to get disgusting if that’s what it takes to convince those who have ignored everything else all this time. To stop appealing to selflessness, since the people receptive to that message have already been reached, and start appealing to selfishness.
Forget other people—you’ve forgotten other people long ago—think about yourself.