Eugenics with a Smile
On the Biden Administration's Covid policy, and who deserves to live
For some months now, I’ve lurked, somewhat shamefacedly, in a controversial Reddit community called r/HermanCainAward. It’s got just shy of a half-million members and has been covered liberally by other too-online members of the press, but in brief summary, it gathers the social-media posts of people who are outspoken against Covid vaccinations and masks, then the harried, grief-stricken hospital updates of friends and family, or the last digital traces of the dying people themselves. Those who are merely critically ill are “nominated,” those who die are “awarded”; Herman Cain, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who is the subreddit’s namesake, fell sick and died shortly after appearing, unmasked, at a Trump rally in June 2020.
For me, the subreddit has served as a way to track the morphology and thrust of anti-vaccine propaganda, appearing in the digital records of the dead and dying with numbing sameness—a real-time marker of the death toll of misinformation. But while the community’s official rules bar rejoicing in or rooting for the deaths of “nominees,” a steady prickle of horror has flooded me as I scan the comments. What unsettles me is not the undercurrent of nominally forbidden glee at death after death of those who have proudly posted transphobic, racist, Christian-nationalist and other hateful content. I’m unbothered at the sharp twist of ironic comeuppance for those hubristic enough to publicly flout mask and vaccine mandates—after years of marinating in online bile, these ill-wishes don’t faze me, comparatively mild and fundamentally passive as they are.
What makes my hair stand on end is the ease, the barely-veiled joy, and sheer snobbery with which members address the purported failings of the unvaccinated dead: their fat bodies; their diabetes; their lack of health insurance; their cancer; their smoking. Commenters are ruthless about the bodies of the dead:
A post title, summarizing a death: “Another obese republican antivaxxer dies free from fear.”
One, about a dead married couple: “He and his wife both got sick and entered the ICU together. His wife died on November 16. He was able to hang on until a few days ago. Neither of them had insurance. The family is struggling to scrape together enough money for cremation.”
Another: “Cheers to this brave patriot who didn’t believe in vaccines. Or medical or life insurance.”
“Not just fat, but dirty,” one user wrote about a dead firefighter. “Fat asses, fat-like-a-thumb middle fingers, bulging guts, conspiracy theories.”
All this—the obesity, the uninsured status—is one more reason to crow at their stupidity for evading the jab. But more than that, it’s reason, in the minds of these anonymous commenters, to view the dead with contempt: that within the carapace of propaganda resided soft-fleshed people, sick people, people too poor to afford good healthcare, people who left nothing but GoFundMes behind. Yes, there is, of course, reason to be desperately angry at those who are willing to drink their own piss, consume horse paste, and turn blue from colloidal silver rather than getting a safe, free injection. But the unvaccinated are neither the beginning nor the end of why Covid-19 is continuing to spread and to kill. And fatness, illness, and poverty are not markers of immorality.
If this ferocious scorn were confined to one morbid Internet community, it would be just a curiosity, a reason to shudder and close the tab. But over the past months in particular, and during the Biden administration in general, it’s become clear that this is a broader attitude—one that pervades all of American society. There’s a name for the practice of passively or actively culling members of the population that do not fit a physical ideal: eugenics. Comments made recently by CDC Director Rochele Walensky—about the “encouraging” nature of a recent Omicron study which found that most of the vaccinated who are currently dying of covid-19 have multiple comorbidities—indicate a broader crisis in the country’s soul: we believe that those who are less healthy are less worthy of life, and our policy shows it.
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It’s not just Wallensky’s ill-judged commentary. The “pandemic of the unvaccinated” rhetoric emerging from the White House hammers at the critical flaw in the American response to Covid-19, one that has rendered our virus response impotent from the first. It is a central axiom in the American mindset that one’s health is a matter of personal responsibility; ailing is a moral failure, a sign of deficient character; health is a primary arbiter of worth. That human bodies have failed throughout all of time—as members of the disability community have said for decades, everyone is only “temporarily abled” until they aren’t—does little to erode the image of the American Übermensch we are all told, in a thousand different ways, to strive for: thin, tanned, lithe, jacked, and bereft of chronic conditions, including poverty. To be anything less than this is to fall short not just of the physical mark, but of a moral ideal—worth less for each deviation from the mean.
What makes for a worthwhile life? If you are poor or sick, or poor and sick (because being poor makes you more likely to be sick in a thousand different ways), is your life worth less? If you are old, is your life worth less? If you can’t walk, is your life worth less? All the signs of public policy and private attitudes in America point to “yes.”
Treating a pandemic that innately affects all members of society as a matter of individual choice, refusing to engage in non-pharmaceutical public-health interventions, pouring only limited resources into vaccine outreach for under-resourced groups, and ending all aid that would enable the ill to isolate and the immunocompromised to survive is a eugenic stance. Drumming up anger at the unvaccinated is not a substitute for substantive, fiscally supportive public-health policy; it’s just a means to deflect blame by a government that has thrown up its hands and watched the corpses pile up, urging the living back to the office, back to school, to congregate unchecked until only the fittest have survived. Even the Biden administration’s late, slow lurch towards providing greater access to rapid testing betrays its bias, not just towards bureaucracy, but towards passive eugenics: now, Americans with the time and inclination to wrangle for hours on the telephone can be reimbursed by their insurance companies for up to eight at-home tests, roughly a $200 upfront cost; 28 million Americans have no health insurance at all.
We treat sick people and poor people the way we treat fat people: with disdain, and disgust, and no aid at all, except for the punitive disregard that those gorged on their own righteousness call “tough love.” Underneath the triumphant rhetoric that most who die are unvaccinated—that most who die are ill to start with—that, as conservative commentator Bethany Mandel put it, they have “lived beyond their life expectancy”—is the notion that they deserved it. As long as it is only “those” people who are dying, it’s OK—they inflicted it on themselves. Even those who conceive of themselves as progressive dig deeper and deeper into a personal rage at the unvaccinated that far outstrips their anger at the magnitude of federal parsimony in this crisis.
I’ve heard the sentiment countless times that the unvaccinated should be denied healthcare, prevented from “clogging up” medical systems with the inconvenience of their deaths. But to numb yourself to the deaths of “those people”—accepting them as inevitable or even just—is to kill a part of yourself completely. And scorn for the unvaccinated too often is accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders at the tide of death that has swept over the chronically ill, the elderly, those afflicted with the diseases of poverty. The truth is that it is easier to be angry at other people for being dumber than you, fatter than you, poorer than you, sicker than you, to scorn them in death and in life, than to recognize that our attitudes are decades late for a shift. You cannot solve a pandemic by going for a daily jog, by getting a jab, by telling yourself your neighbors deserved to die, or that their deaths could not have been avoided. We are all in this together, the ill and the healthy, the poor and the wealthy—and every life is precious, worthy of saving. Only when we start from these fundamental principles can we begin to address the waves of death that continue to sluice over our prow, and demand better.