The persistence of Covid denialism

A nurse in South Dakota says some of her patients refuse to believe they are infected with Covid-19 until their dying breath – literally. Some would rather be told they had the flu, pneumonia, even lung cancer (!) – anything but Covid. They may have believed that Covid-19 was either a hoax, or a shameful disease, or a sign of eternal perdition.

In the comments, people say “Jonestown!” I read about the mass suicide in Jonestown as a kid and couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact. Why would hundreds of people drink soda laced with sodium cyanide and drop dead, all by their own volition? I only learned much later about the coercion and the guards killing cult members. So not really Jonestown, no — even though people sometimes choose suicidal paths to transcendence.

To those of us who live in big cities, whether in China, Russia, America or Europe, the gravity of the new infection became clear early on, from near-personal experience. It wasn’t our friends or family who fell prey at first but friends’ friends and acquaintances’ acquaintances.

An octogenarian math professor at my university died: I had not taken his classes as a student but everybody knew and respected him, a fine old-school gentleman. A composer in his late 70s died months after his only opera had been staged by one of Moscow’s finest companies. Again, not someone I had personally known but an acquaintance of a friend of a close relative. Also, a family friend’s family member, suffering from cancer, died of Covid complications. The picture was painting itself with sparse strokes but in grim colors, although there was still hope the epidemics would stall and go away.

Soon afterwards, the virus would encroach on our offices and neighborhoods, making deep inroads and eventually hitting colleagues and neighbors. The epidemic got worse than expected, but by the time it did, it had already been obvious to us that the virus was not a lie, a phantom or a propaganda trick.

(Of course you always have to make an allowance for illogic. Some Russians still believe the most outlandish propaganda on state TV – lullabies of cuckoo-land, so to say – but when the government tells them to wear masks in public, they suspect it’s a ploy for totalitarian control à la Chine or some such insidiousness. Corrosive Covid skepticism is not a specifically Trumpist phenomenon.)

Residents of smaller towns and villages may not have had this early recognition experience. It was the responsibility of those whose voices are heeded in such communities to explain, warn and instruct. How well did they discharge that responsibility? I’d like to quote an article by Emily Brumfield-Hessen about a family friend who died “died of pneumonia and coronavirus” on March 25. The man was represented, or perhaps misrepresented by the media…

…as a pandemic-denying Trumpist evangelical who got what he deserved. But Landon Spradlin… died because he came from a casually conservative rural America that has become worryingly detached from reality over the pandemic, and thousands of others could follow his path.

And so they have, apparently. Spradlin, from Chatham, Virginia…

…wasn’t some prosperity gospel huckster or wealthy megachurch pastor. He was a traveling musician who frequently went out of his way to help the forgotten and the downtrodden, and he never had much money. He condemned drugs and alcohol, but he tried his best to help addicts recover and give them a place to stay when they had nobody else.

A good man who understood addiction but misunderstood Covid-19.

He loved playing the blues, and he loved people. He went to New Orleans, where he caught the coronavirus, in a misguided attempt to save souls, but he also wanted to see his old friends and experience another Mardi Gras.

He collapsed and died in a hospital in Concord, North Carolina, away from home.

It seems to me that Spradlin did not really think the virus was a hoax: he acknowledged it was real but felt that its morbidity was being exaggerated by the media to put the blame on Donald Trump for mishandling the public health crisis. I’d agree that most of the reporting made Trump look as bad as possible. However, Trump’s own actions or inaction made it impossible for him not to appear irresponsible at least.

And so the musician-pastor fatally underestimated the risks to himself. Unfortunately, his death was not taken as a warning by people who ought to have learned from it – people one could call his peers. This is puzzling. When one of your own dies, normally you pay attention and take precautions not to follow them down.

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