“Unvaccinated COVID patients do not deserve ICU beds.”
“I have no empathy left for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die.”
In the no-holds barred world of Twitter, comments like these, where the vaccinated say the unvaccinated deserve what they get, are becoming increasingly common. But even in the minds of people on the street, these sentiments are swirling in collective thoughts as the intensifies and vaccination rates plateau.
According to a recent most vaccinated Canadians are indifferent to the unvaccinated getting sick with the virus, with 83 per cent saying they have no sympathy for those who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine and then fall ill. Anecdotally, patience is even wearing thin among health-care professionals.
“There’s certainly health-care workers who have said they’re out of sympathy,” said Amir Imani, a clinical pharmacist serving neurological rehabilitation patients, including those recovering from COVID-19, adding that sometimes he feels it, too. “Many of them, frankly, have had it much worse than I do working in COVID ICUs.”
Dr. Anita Sircar, an infectious-disease physician, “Last year, a case like this would have flattened me. I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was,” Sircar wrote. “This year, I struggled to find sympathy.”
The lack of sympathy is apparent as the debate around mandatory vaccinations to attend public spaces heats up politically, and as ICU capacity and case numbers climb again. Over 80 per cent of eligible Canadians already have their first dose, and many are eager to return to a life free of COVID threats after 18 months. With vaccines free and available in Canada, patience and understanding for those who still choose not to get vaccinated is in short supply.
The rise of the more contagious Delta variant is also increasing the pressure. Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, stressed to reporters on Tuesday the urgency of getting more people vaccinated, especially those in the 18-29 age group, where only 62.6 per cent are fully vaccinated in Ontario.
For Imani and other health professionals, empathy for the unvaccinated remains key to having open conversations about their decision, and ideally convincing more people to get the shot once their fears about the vaccine are addressed.
But for most of the public, empathy is becoming harder to practise, and the divide between those who are vaccinated and those who are not is widening. On social media, quotes like “If an unvaccinated person catches it from someone who is vaccinated, boohoo, too bad,” and “If you chose to be unvaccinated I don’t care about you,” have become common, as news reports emerge of more people getting hospitalized with COVID-19 before receiving a vaccine.
Among all Canadians surveyed by Angus Reid regardless of vaccination status, 75 per cent said they’re unsympathetic to the unvaccinated getting sick. For the much smaller number of the unvaccinated, 82 per cent of them showed higher rates of sympathy for those who, like them, are unvaccinated and may become ill.
The divide between the two groups, while stark, is not entirely surprising. Empathy — the act of relating to and understanding someone who shares a different set of beliefs than our own — can sometimes be hard to practise in general, said Sara Konrath, a Canadian social psychologist. Konrath directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Empathy is different from sympathy, which means developing feelings of pity and sadness for someone else’s unfortunate situation.
Research shows that empathy takes effort, Konrath said, and it could be harder to extend when we ourselves feel worn out and psychologically tired. , published in the American Journal of Psychology, concluded that empathy is not easy to extend, and “in many cases, particularly with strangers, it may require cognitive work.” Work that, Konrath said, is tough to do when we ourselves aren’t feeling great because of pandemic trauma.
“People are exhausted at this point,” Konrath said. “At the best times, empathy takes effort … It’s been a year and a half of very challenging stress, financial stress, homeschooling, worries about jobs, worries about health, social isolation.”
“People don’t have the psychological resources that we would have had otherwise to invest in people different from us.”
Konrath said she finds herself feeling empathetic for people who aren’t able to extend empathy now. “I would assume that people who answered the (Angus Reid) survey don’t feel really great when they say they don’t care about the unvaccinated … I think if they were in a better state in their life, they probably wouldn’t feel that way.”
But the topic of vaccination has also become especially polarizing, said Imani, the clinical pharmacist. Developing lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, or dying in a car accident after dangerous speeding, are understood as consequences of unhealthy behaviour, though the tragic outcomes are typically met with more empathy.
Responses to COVID, on the other hand, have become tied to our sense of identity, Imani said, making understanding between the vaccinated and unvaccinated even more difficult. The spread of the virus also impacts communities as a whole, and not just the individual who chooses to be unvaccinated.
While a percentage of people remain unvaccinated because of barriers to access or information, Imani said, some have capitalized on it as a political movement, tied to freedom of choice and anti-vaccine sentiments. “People smoke, but there isn’t a pro-smoking political group, or pro-smoking conspiracy theories,” he said.
The rise of conspiracies tied to the vaccine is one of many reasons why Imani said he maintains empathy through his role in health care, especially as a bulk of his time is spent educating those who are hesitant about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
“You can’t help people if you don’t really understand what they’re thinking or what they’re coming from,” Imani said. He added most of the people he ends up interacting with aren’t staunch anti-vaxxers, but rather victims of misinformation or systemic barriers, like not having access to a family doctor to answer questions about the safety of the vaccine.
“What I try to focus on is the systemic barriers that got them into that position, which I think are a lot more common than people think,” Imani said. Ultimately, he added, bridging the gap with the unvaccinated is important for society.
“No man is an island, and we are not separate from people who choose to not get vaccinated,” he said, adding those who survive illness with post-COVID health complications will likely put a strain on health care and social services, with ramifications on broader society and the economy.
Both Konrath and Imani said the lack of empathy for the unvaccinated after 18 months of a pandemic riddled with loss, isolation and despair are understandable. But for those who want to build on their empathy, Konrath said the work starts with healing from within.
“This is a time where people need recovery, they need to restore and rebuild both emotionally and socially, and give themselves time where they feel like they’re themselves again.”
She added that because exercising empathy is a choice and takes effort, a person needs to be willing and ready to do it. It’s also important to note that while empathy is a pillar of health-care workers’ job to help patients make informed decisions, empathy in general should be exercised without an agenda and without an expectation that someone will change their mind or behaviour.
“Our lack of empathy is not going to be very effective,” she said. “And if we do have empathy, the purpose of it is not to change them, it’s to understand them.”
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: