Jason Stevenson: The zombie virus is already here

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this Sept. 5 photo, people gather during a "Trash Your Mask Protest" rally hosted by the Utah Business Revival at the Utah State Capitol in Salt lake City.

It’s almost Halloween, which means hordes of zombie movies are taking over TV screens across Utah. These apocalyptic fictions should remind us that as bad as COVID-19 gets, at least this virus does not turn us into brain-starved ghouls incapable of rational thought.

Or does it? What about the people who refuse to believe medical evidence that COVID-19 is a contagious and deadly disease?

These are the people who gather in tight-packed crowds dressed like every day is the Fourth of July. Unperturbed by germ theory, they listen to wild-eyed speakers tell them that COVID is a hoax, the flu, created by Bill Gates, or all three at once.

They are the same people who bulldoze past store employees imploring them to wear a mask. And they clog social media with videos from grim-faced conspiracy theorists who have “figured out” that every doctor, nurse, scientist, and the 226,000 Americans who have died from COVID are part of a global conspiracy by George Soros.

Could these COVID deniers be a secret army of virus-infected zombies already among us? Whether they are undead or not, the vital question raised by their existence is this: How many of them does it take to ruin the recovery for everyone else?

Even if your family wears masks, your COVID-denying neighbor can throw a super-spreader party in his backyard and render your efforts meaningless. Likewise, every new anti-mask freedom rally, business revival festival or mock rave party at Brigham Young University is delaying Utah’s return normal life. Despite months of sacrifice, our progress is being held hostage by a few reckless people who believe the daily virus counts are as fake as the moon landings.

It could be different. Countries like Taiwan, New Zealand and Uruguay successful slowed community transmission of COVID-19 with a swift lockdown followed by a gradual re-opening, rapid testing and universal mask-wearing. Far from destroying their societies, all the schools in Taiwan are open, 40,000 fans filled a rugby stadium in New Zealand this month, and their industries and businesses are booming.

The claim by COVID deniers that stricter public health measures will permanently damage our economy is defeatism. The real harm to our business climate, our education system and our mental health comes from the fear and uncertainty caused by losing ground. While we watch more schools and events in Utah supernova with coronavirus cases, our friends in New Zealand and Taiwan are attending class, noshing stadium hotdogs and going out to movies.

The success of other counties shows that beating COVID-19 depends on how we respond to it. If enough people wear masks and follow public health guidance, perhaps the positive test rate could drop below the threshold that indicates control of the virus. But if only 70% of us are doing those things, the virus keeps winning. And if enough people continue to refuse public health advice even after a vaccine becomes available, the unpredictable spread of COVID-19 could continue to endanger us.

However, it is also too simple to blame COVID deniers alone for sinking Utah’s chances at beating the virus. It would be like blaming the China for the nightmare we are experiencing in the United States. This deflection ignores how everyday actions by elected officials, government agencies and you and your neighbors play a role in spreading this virus, and someday, in stopping it.

One way we can beat the virus is to share a powerful antidote that is toxic to both COVID-deniers and the virus. I’m referring to empathy. Some people intuitively realize the impact of their decisions on others, including those they don’t know personally. As a result, they are willing to make sacrifices — like wearing a mask — that might be inconvenient but promote the greater good. Conversely, many COVID-deniers are unable to imagine needs beyond their own impulses and won’t believe the virus is real until they are about to be hospitalized on a ventilator.

Whenever the COVID-19 vaccine is released, it will still be missing a strong dose of empathy required to make it successful. And it will be up to the rest of us to supply it, and maybe a dash of brains, too.

Jason Stevenson

Jason Stevenson is a writer and resident of Salt Lake City. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely his own.