“What are my odds of getting Covid? They’re pretty low,” conservative talk radio host Phil Valentine wrote in December of last year. Putting his odds of dying should he contract the virus at “probably way less than one percent,” Valentine — a longtime fixture of Nashville airwaves — stressed that he was “not an anti-vaxxer. I’m just using common sense.”
Defying his own odds, last week Phil Valentine died of Covid-19. He was the first of three conservative talk radio hosts to pass away from the virus this month. “He regrets not being more adamant about getting the vaccine,” Valentine’s brother Mark told The Tennessean. “Look at the dadgum data.”
That data is stark. We are currently in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Folks living in states with low vaccination rates are four times more likely to be hospitalized by Covid and five times more likely to die of it than those living in states with higher vaccination rates.
“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” the right is fond of saying, and that is certainly true here. So many anti-vaccine activists are falling ill and even dying from Covid that an entire subreddit, r/HermanCainAward, was created to document the growing number of fatalities. Named for the former Republican presidential candidate who contracted and died from Covid following a Trump rally last year, it is a stark indication of how the misinformation spread by right-wing media is costing not only its audience, but its stars, their lives.
Among those fatalities include two Florida rightwing shock jocks. Dick Farrel passed away on August 4, while the death of Daytona radio host Marc Bernier was announced on Saturday. Farrel and Bernier were stridently against vaccines, with Bernier comparing vaccination efforts to Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, in Texas 30-year-old anti-vaccine activist Caleb Wallace also died of Covid over the weekend, leaving behind his pregnant wife and three other children.
Every death from Covid-19, no matter the person’s views, is an utter tragedy. Many on the left, however, have taken an almost smug satisfaction in the deaths of prominent anti-vaxxers. The writer Dylan Park mocked Wallace as he fought for his life in ICU. Occupy Democrats were practically gloating as they called him an “unvaccinated Trumper” and asked followers to retweet “IF YOU’RE PROUDLY VACCINATED!” Former congressional candidate Mark Judson went as far as to say Wallace “should NOT have been admitted into a hospital”. Many of the comments and tweets on the various social media pages of the deceased are even more abhorrent.
This smug sanctimony is counterproductive. Snide condescension will not win over folks who are against vaccination. However, the fact that these deaths were all preventable — and that the deceased persons not only refused to do the bare minimum but contributed to a culture of lies, untruths, and misinformation which put the public at rest — cannot be ignored. It must be understood that a healthy distrust of government and big pharma is for many Americans grounded in material reality. Here in Appalachia, for example, big pharma made a killing by killing our people. Starting in the 1990s, Purdue Pharmaceuticals began marketing OxyContin in the region. Last year, Purdue pleaded guilty to conspiracies to defraud the United States and to violating anti-kickback schemes. The company admitted to marketing and selling its pills to doctors it had strong reason to believe were acting as “pill mills” and prescribing the medicine to abusers.
Still, there is no getting around the Republican elephant in the room. By far the most immediate cause for vaccine hesitancy is conservative talking heads. From Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity to Valentine, Farrel, and Bernier, rightwing media has consistently turned public health into the frontline of their asinine culture war.
After spending decades propagating a perverted version of rugged individualism which posits that individuals have no collective responsibility and acting selfishly should be rewarded, these pundits capitalized on the pandemic by politicizing every aspect of it. Masks became a sign of weakness and government overreach, and vaccines were viewed with an almost medieval skepticism.
Even the deaths of some of their most revered voices do not seem to have any affect on the most ardent anti-vaxxers. “Maybe some prefer Biden gestapo style of force, your choice,” said one fan in a comment left on Phil Valentine’s Facebook page more than a week after he died. “Everything I heard you say about the virus and the [vaccine] was to help people think for themselves to make an informed decision and I’m grateful for that especially when the truth has been suppressed,” said another.
That Valentine himself had a change of heart on the vaccine before he died seems not to register with his most ardent fans. The damage has already been done.
Having spent more than a year fomenting mistrust and spreading misinformation, last month Fox News finally began encouraging its viewers to get vaccinated. Every indication is that it is too late, though. After encouraging a crowd to get vaccinated at a rally earlier this month, Donald Trump — the Grand Poobah of pandemic misinformation — was booed by his own supporters.
Clearly, it is going to take more than an eleventh-hour change of heart from Trump and deathbed conversions from his acolytes in the media to fix what they have broken. How we do that is the million-dollar question. How do you convince the unconvinced? Ease the fears of the vaccine hesitant? Break through the misinformation with truth and science? I do not know.
Rather than gloating over the deaths of Valentine, Farrel, Bernier, and Wallace, I mourn for them — and for the culture which convinced them to convince others that science and medicine are not to be trusted. The misinformation spread by rightwing media has a body count. And that body count includes some of its own.
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