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McDermott: Lessons from an Uber ride about the pandemic and vaccines

McDermott: Lessons from an Uber ride about the pandemic and vaccines


The Uber driver was maybe in her 50s — it’s always hard to tell with the masks — and she wasn’t happy about what they were saying on the radio. Something about President Joe Biden. She scoffed at the mention of his name.

So I wasn’t that surprised when she added that she had no intention of getting vaccinated for the coronavirus. It’s bizarre but true that partisanship is a pretty reliable predictor of whether people accept medical facts regarding the coronavirus. A year in, we’ve gotten used to this non sequitur, as if it were normal to assume that taller people are likelier to believe in ghosts or something. When the history of the pandemic is written, some key chapters will have to be handled by the psychologists.

She had heard that the vaccines can make you sick. I agreed that headaches and fever are reportedly common side effects. She wondered why anyone would risk that. I suggested that having the coronavirus can be worse.

A lot worse.

She asked if I knew anyone who’d had a bad case of it. I told her I had been hospitalized with it in January. And then the strangest thing happened: She started listening.

That’s not the norm these days. Polls consistently indicate what elections, social media and plain old conversation confirm: We’re a more politically polarized country now than at any time in decades, so entrenched in our opposing belief systems that we simply refuse to process new information or opinions that might challenge those beliefs.

It predates the pandemic and Donald Trump’s presidency. A study in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, based on polling of more than 10,000 Americans, found less ideological overlap between liberals and conservatives than at any point in a generation. It also found that many on both sides had by then already retreated to “ideological silos” in which even seemingly nonpolitical life choices like whom to befriend or where to live are driven by ideology — or by antagonism toward opposing ideologies. Those gulfs only grew wider during the Trump years.

When it comes to the particulars of the pandemic, I won’t play the both-siderism game. One side has been consistently wrong on the facts, and that’s a fact. The virus has now killed more Americans than World War II plus every war since, yet in one poll late last year, just a third of Republicans viewed the virus as a major threat. A more recent poll shows almost half of Republican men are refusing vaccination. But when it comes to our general refusal to consider any argument that comes from the other side, we’re pretty much all guilty these days.

I didn’t expect to change the Uber driver’s mind, because that’s not how it works today. People don’t listen to opposing views, consider them on their merits and then change their own views if the argument is convincing. Ideological silos. I’ve been asked how often my opinion-writing changes minds, and I have to acknowledge that it’s probably in the seldom-to-never category. Changing minds was once the whole point of the endeavor, but the nature of opinion itself has changed today. It’s not intellectual but tribal, less a debate of ideas than something akin to loyalty to a football team.

So I was surprised when she paused her indictment of the vaccines to ask me to tell her more about being hospitalized with the virus.

I recounted how I didn’t lose my sense of smell as many do, “just my breathing,” and how it felt for breathing to be precarious for most of a week. I told her about how you don’t get used to those oxygen tubes in your nose even after days of it, how even just shifting positions in the hospital bed was an ordeal, how I could communicate with family only via text because no one could visit and I couldn’t comfortably talk into the phone. I told her how I’d written a note to my daughter, just in case. I told her how, three months later, I was still feeling that thickness in my chest.

I didn’t tell her about using the plastic hand-held urinal for days despite the bathroom being just a few steps from the bed because taking those few steps was untenable. There are some things you don’t tell the Uber driver.

I did tell her that when I hear the daily death toll now, it’s not just an abstract number. Those people — more than a half-million in the U.S. so far — didn’t nod off peacefully from life. They suffocated, with no one around them except doctors and nurses in space suits.

I don’t know if she’ll actually get vaccinated, but that’s what she said right before she dropped me off.

I don’t claim any special powers of persuasion (my mail indicates otherwise), but there was something invigorating about watching someone weigh new information and alter her thinking based on it. It makes you wonder what would happen if Trump and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and others with megaphones on the right were to loudly convey their own coronavirus experiences. Who knows? People might actually listen.

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