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Workers plant white flags as part of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's temporary art installation, In America: Remember, in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19, on the National Mall in Washington, Sept. 15, 2021.

Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press

Bob Enyart, a Colorado pastor infamous for mocking AIDS victims on his TV show in the nineties, recently urged his followers to decline COVID-19 vaccines. Writing on his website, he acknowledged that it is “not inherently sinful to take an immorally-developed vaccine,” referring to the use of fetal cell lines in the development of the vaccines, but nevertheless implored his followers to boycott Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson “to further increase social tension and put pressure on the child killers.”

Nashville talk radio host Phil Valentine, who repeatedly expressed skepticism both about the seriousness of the virus and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, said he wasn’t going to risk heart attack or paralysis by getting the shot. Scott Apley, a local Texas politician, filled his Facebook page with antimask and anti-vaccine comments and memes. Marc Bernier, a Florida talk-radio host, proudly labelled himself “Mr. Anti-Vax.” Dick Farrell, another Florida talk-radio host, called COVID-19 vaccines “poison.”

All of these men are now dead, having eschewed the buoy that might have kept them from drowning.

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These stories are becoming more common as the Delta-driven fourth wave tears through unvaccinated communities in the United States: outspoken anti-vaxxers, who use their pulpits to proselytize about the supposed dangers of vaccination, are succumbing to the actual and evermore present danger of the virus.

If the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t an emergency demanding real leadership, what is?

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The charitable view to take on deaths of the aforementioned men and people like them is that they were hopelessly misguided – victims of a social ecosystem perverted by misinformation and knee-jerk contrarianism. The less charitable view – and likely the more ubiquitous one, if we’re honest about the nature of our rather vicious species – probably finds some schadenfreude in hearing about these once-defiant people eating the ultimate crow. After all, not only did these people risk their own lives by shirking vaccination, but they also encouraged their followers to take a dip in the ocean and leave the lifeboat behind.

The pace of vaccination in the U.S. reached a peak around the middle of April, when more than three million first or second shots were administered daily. The number of first doses dropped off dramatically after that, reaching an average low of just a few hundred thousand daily at the beginning of July. But when the Delta variant started sending the unvaccinated to hospitals in droves, overwhelming hospitals in Missouri, Florida, Texas and other states where vaccination rates had stagnated or remained low all along, people again started lining up for first doses. The increase in new reported deaths, which has been rising since mid-July and shows no sign of slowing down, appears to have achieved what vaccine incentives, education and threats of mandates could not: it has convinced some hesitant Americans to finally roll up their sleeves.

As a result, the United States now finds itself in a perverse scenario where death could actually be seen as a social good – ghoulish and taboo as that might be to acknowledge – if it compels those who are hesitant to concede to vaccination.

Observing illness alone doesn’t seem to do the trick. Indeed, some influential people who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19 have emerged even more defiant, peddling unproven theories that they credit for their recovery. Podcaster Joe Rogan – who had, in April, declared on his massively popular show that young and healthy people need not be vaccinated – recently recovered from COVID-19 but defended his use of Ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic conditions but unproven against COVID-19. And though some had hoped that the bout former U.S. president Donald Trump faced would leave him humbled and perhaps compel him to urge others to take the virus more seriously, he returned to the White House defiant as ever. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted after receiving state-of-the-art care and treatments that were inaccessible at the time to average Americans. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Stories of people contracting and recovering from COVID-19, even if they suffer greatly in the interim (as Mr. Trump reportedly did), just don’t seem to have the persuasive power of death. The news that Mr. Enyart died for the sake of his vaccine boycott, or that Mr. Valentine died of COVID-19 because he didn’t want the remote risk of dying of a heart attack, or that Mr. Farrell’s lungs filled with infection because he believed a syringe was filled with “poison” – such sad but blunt lessons could actually help Americans overcome their hesitation. Observers tend to remember outcomes – death or recovery – more than they recall the process, and when the outcome is death, the message is clear.

These casualties are, of course, absolutely tragic. But in a very backward, very unfortunate way, they could also be a force for good.

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