Paul Gibbs: Take no joy in the misery of the unvaccinated

Any step toward separating those who deserve life and those who don’t moves our society away from compassion when we need it more than ever.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lindsay Brown prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru event organized by the Utah County Health Department in Spanish Fork on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

“This is the weapon of the enemy. We do not need it. We will not use it.”

— Batman, “The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller

Most who know me through my advocacy know that Batman is my activist alter ego. I’m inspired by how he uses the fear and pain of his own trauma as motivation to turn fear and pain against themselves, and that’s what I try to do by fighting to give others the access to health care that gave me the transplanted kidney that has kept me alive.

Batman obeys one rule which he believes separates him from his adversaries: he refuses to kill. The line I won’t cross is rooting for or taking pleasure in anyone’s illness or death, and I allow no exceptions. These things are the enemy, and I will not use their weapons.

As the pandemic rages, I see many good people reacting without compassion to the deaths of unvaccinated people. They cite the ready availability of vaccines and the politically motivated refusal of many as reasons these people deserve their fate.

I certainly understand and share the anger at those who spread vile anti-vaccine propaganda and deride a safe and simple measure which could save the lives of themselves and others. I would argue that I’m in a position to feel this more than most, as my status as an immunocompromised kidney transplant patient has put me in virtual house arrest for most of the past year and a half.

But despite my anger at the anti-vaxxers, I cannot share the dismissive attitude toward their passing.

No one’s vaccination choice truly impacts them alone. Unvaccinated people increase the spread of COVID-19 to others, and slow our chances of reaching herd immunity. As they die, so will others with them, whether they are unvaccinated or are immunocompromised or otherwise higher risk, even if vaccinated.

Far from all of those who fail to get vaccinated are angry, politically motivated anti-vaxxers. Many simply have not been able to sort the real information from the anti-vaccine propaganda and crackpot theories. And an inordinate number of them are in the Medicaid population. These are the same people so many of us in Utah fought long and hard to protect through Medicaid expansion. To care less about them now would blur the line between us and those we accused of dismissing their health and lives because they disagreed with expanding Medicaid.

During the fights I joined in to expand Medicaid and protect the Affordable Care Act, I saw an astonishing lack of compassion. Whether it was the person who said they hoped my 1-year-old son and I got run over on our way to a rally, or politicians who echoed Ayn Rand rhetoric to complain about taking money from “producers” to help the uninsured, I saw people who had made a moral compromise to allow for the belief that some lives are less important than others.

I promised never to make the same compromise. Whether our reason is better than theirs is not the point; Any step toward separating those who deserve life and those who don’t moves our society away from compassion when we need it more than ever.

If we are to be defenders of human life, we cannot do so by devaluing lives, however ridiculous or pernicious their beliefs and choices. We don’t need the weapon of the enemy, and we must refuse to use it. Our words undermine our own efforts to extend compassion to others. To paraphrase my hero again, it’s not who we are underneath, but what we do that defines us.

Paul Gibbs

Paul Gibbs is an independent filmmaker, health care activist and Batman fan. He has advocated for health care causes locally and nationally since receiving a kidney transplant, and is currently waiting out the pandemic in West Valley City with his wife and two sons, and teaching kindergarten at home to his 5-year-old.