Moloch in the ICU

 

Thanks to those who have politicized vaccines and masks, maybe Moloch worship is not gone from our world.

“Why is there a Moloch-worshipper in the ICU?”

That may sound sinister and odd, but then again, I’ve been described as a “crack-smoking, demon-possessed, leftist,” so maybe it’s just my kind of question. But I’m in good company, for to be similarly described you need only have faith in masks, vaccines, and science. So if you have that, and some shred of human decency, I fear you too might be asking yourself a similarly disturbing hypothetical question. For those working in healthcare the question is not really a hypothetical anymore.

 

Does it not seem like a drum-beat, drowning out the suffering of the vulnerable with the timbrels of anti-mask protest and the whine of contrived grievance?

If we find ourselves in a position to save lives of the sick or injured, passing judgment on their character is morally repulsive. As a society, we do not expect – and should not accept – an assessment of a patient’s moral worthiness before wanting to lend urgent aid. Imagine a mass traffic accident overwhelming a small hospital’s emergency rooms. We could not accept a doctor looking around and demanding “Is this the drunk driver? Find me the drunk driver who did this so we can kick him to the back of the queue!”

In such an emergency, rushing to judgment looks like an abhorrent waste of precious moments that are far better spent on saving as many as can be saved. But the current COVID surge, and the impact of those who choose to decline a vaccine that could slow it, or worse, who work against efforts to protect lives in public spaces, makes ignoring the question of morality more abhorrent than the question itself might seem. Ignoring our moral obligations to each other does more than waste a few moments.

In February of 2020, a 56 year old man suffered a heart attack. As his wife described it, it was “one of those widow-makers” that would have killed him were it not for the timely and intensive care he received at the local hospital. Had he suffered his attack only two weeks later, the same hospital would have had no ICU beds for him because of the first COVID surge, and his wife would likely now be a widow. They avoided literal and emotional heart-break that day, but the decision the hospital staff would have faced in 2020 is not like the same decision if faced in 2021.

If wards and ICU beds overflow with patients, the majority of whom are unvaccinated, and if many of those are willfully unvaccinated, is it right that their “personal choices cause the deaths of others? Others who, unlike them, thought and worked harder to cause no harm?

The angry pastor, denouncing the “crack smoking, demon-possessed, leftists,” does not know me. I am vaccinated, and I wear masks around others, but I do not smoke crack. Indeed, I do not smoke at all, and so I’ve never had to separate myself from others to protect them from the second-hand smoke of my personal choices. I am thereby cheaper to insure, and (hopefully) less likely to burden the healthcare system. We can agree on this for smoking, so why is it so hard for potentially transmitting a deadly disease?

As for leftists, politics should not come into this. Judges, who recently affirmed that a university’s vaccine mandate did not violate students’ rights, were all Republican appointees. This is only a politically divisive issue for those who choose to politicize it, and when they do, they lack credibility. They demand that a vaccinated society tolerate their presence, but somehow never propose to be separated from the rest of us. A person choosing to refuse a vaccine (as opposed to being unable to be vaccinated) is claiming a right to benefit from a herd immunity to which they refuse to contribute. They want to get whatever accommodation could be afforded to the genuine few who truly cannot be vaccinated. By demanding to participate in a largely vaccinated society, while remaining willfully unvaccinated, they choose to leave the rest of society to bear what they choose not to carry. They are like someone claiming to be libertarian at tax time and refusing to pay taxes, then also demanding free access to the public resources they refuse to fund.

The angry pastor, preaching hate and contempt for others, is wrong but nowhere near the top of my concerns. Followers weigh heavier on my mind. And politicians, similarly turning masks and vaccines into divisive wedges (and working against their own public health experts), have even larger flocks. They lead the millions who support and follow them down a dark selfish path, embracing the idea that individual convenience trumps the safety of those around them — seemingly, yet inexcusably, blind to the danger in which they place those more vulnerable than themselves. And what “freedom” is it that they demand when they reject others’ right to protect themselves? Is it the freedom to impose their presence upon others, free from responsibility, precaution, or fear of rebuke? Is it the freedom to risk others lives for their own convenience? Call it what it is, a freedom to threaten and endanger, and it is no longer the noble goal it pretends to be.

Even if we did not have over 48 million children in the US who cannot yet be vaccinated,  there will always be individuals who cannot choose the protection of a vaccine (e.g., the immunocompromised cancer patient, or people with dangerous allergies). Demanding that society accept your individual callousness is not just selfish, but is a dangerously immoral demand. So how can we reach those who cannot, or will not, see the threat, especially when they dress their wolves in a faux fleece of freedom and faith?

Following bad leaders, and being willing to sacrifice the vulnerable in the name of their false cause, has been the subject of cautionary tales, and moral admonishment, for centuries. Those admonishments have even been biblical (which is particularly painful given how many peddlers of medical disinformation seem to claim religious grounds for their dangerous beliefs). Milton’s 1667 description (from Paradise Lost) offers one disturbing, and particularly fitting, image:

 

“… MOLOCH, horrid king besmear’d with blood,

Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,

Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,

Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire

To his grim Idol.”

 

Those old words even seem to capture the feel of modern misinformation. Does it not seem like a drum-beat, drowning out the suffering of the vulnerable with the timbrels of anti-mask protest and the whine of contrived grievance?

Will enough of the selfish and willfully ignorant wake up before it is too late? Will it be just the few who fall ill, repenting in the very hospital beds they denied to others? Will they then apologize to the remaining healthcare workers whom they haven’t driven to burn-out and resignation? Or is there hope for those who are not personally humbled by the virus?

Consider Georgia Republicans. Will they continue opposing mask and vaccine mandates, and demanding that children be unmasked? Or will they suddenly treat willful COVID transmission as a serious felony, as they’ve long done for HIV (through a stigmatizing law, the reform of which still faces hurdles in the legislature today)? The inconsistency, if not outright hypocrisy, is hard to miss. And that’s really the point: We live in a time where we have fewer excuses than ever to willfully accept ignorance, or to pretend that we do not know how our actions affect others. We should be able to see the evil of turning unfounded personal beliefs into threats to the lives of others. At the very least, can we not see it as clearly as someone living in the 1600s did?

In America we have the luxury not just of free and plentiful vaccine supply, but the freedom to choose whom we follow. Wasting these privileges is a personal choice, but with consequences for others. Most of us, like myself, have the added luxury of never being forced to make a tough healthcare policy decision. I’m no smoker, and doubt I’m a leftist. In fairness to one angry pastor, however, I am also no Descartes, and so I cannot prove that I am not demon-possessed. But if I am, and that demon is making me want to wear a mask and take a jab to protect my friends and loved ones, I’m o.k. with that. For if enough of us remain “demon-free,” and as medical resources and ICU capacityonce again reach a breaking point, then even if most of us don’t have to ask the question, at some point our doctors and the most vulnerable among us will have to seriously ask: “Is there room for Moloch worshippers in the ERs and ICUs?” and if that question isn’t asked and answered soon, then we may all have to ask ourselves why we were willing to help them sacrifice the most vulnerable among us?

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