Stop Gloating Over COVID Deaths Among Anti-Vaxxers

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


January 05, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I head the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine.

Have you ever heard the word schadenfreude? It's German for taking joy or pleasure in the miseries of others. Sadly, we've seen quite a bit of this taking place during the COVID-19 era.

There was a gentleman reported in The New York Times named Nick Bledsoe, from Alabama, who was an auto mechanic there. He had shared his opposition to vaccines and masks many times since last year on his Facebook page, basically saying, "Don't get vaccinated. I don't care if you ever get a vaccine, come on into my shop. I think vaccines are stupid."

He kept referring to and even cursing President Joe Biden for his mandates, saying, "Biden and his ridiculous vaccine requirements," and he frequently posted misinformation about the safety of vaccines on his website as well.

About 6 months after that, probably sometime in March or April of this year, he wound up on a ventilator. Although he said he wanted to be vaccinated at that time, it was too late. He never left the hospital. He died at the age of 41, leaving behind a wife and four kids. Sadly, if you will, he was an opponent of vaccination and ended up suffering for it.

What happened as a result of this death of someone who was such a critic was that pro-vaccine people began to pile on to his website, insulting him, basically calling him out as a hypocrite, a fool, or worse, and basically leveled all kinds of, if you will, schadenfreude — taking joy in his death.

That raises an ethics question: Should a patient get involved in that, what do you say? Is it ever right to say, "Look, you said all these things and they resulted in your death, so you deserved it or you merited it"? I don't think so.

As much as it might be tempting to say, "You basically have caused harm because you've told others not to vaccinate, you didn't vaccinate yourself, you spread misinformation, and now you got yourself sick and you died," I think the goal here is to try to get people who don't want to vaccinate and don't want to mask to do so — to get better behavior.

I have to say, flat out, that making fun of, insulting, sneering at their surviving spouse, their surviving children, doing it in a public way... I don't think it's going to be persuasive in any way to vaccine critics and opponents. Indeed, it's probably likely to just make them mad and further the divide that exists between pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine, between pro-science and anti-science attitudes that we see all over the United States.

I get the temptation. This guy did some harm by running a website where he put out nonsense and false information, and he paid the price. That's sad enough for his wife and kids. Just commenting on the fact that he died, I think, makes all the points that need to be made about the importance of vaccines.

Would it be useful if, later, one of his children said, "I want to talk about the importance of vaccines because I lost my dad"? Yes, but that's something that the family gets to choose. That's something that the family might decide to do in order to try to correct misinformation or hope that a tragedy doesn't happen to another family.

I absolutely do not encourage badmouthing, finger-pointing, or insulting anybody who's lost someone to COVID-19, even if part of the reason that might have happened is that they didn't take the proper precautions or they didn't follow the best medical advice.

At the end of the day, if we're cruel to those we disagree with, I don't think it's going to move the needle in terms of getting them to do better, to support better practices, or to reconsider some of their opposition to the best tools we have to protect them against diseases like COVID-19.

It just doesn't work that way. I don't think hate delivers.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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