Opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig undermines efforts to fight Covid-19 with her confused commentary on vaccines, herd immunity, and related subjects.
Elizabeth Bruenig has a huge platform as an opinion piece writer and political commentator. She has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Jacobin, and many more, including many public radio and left podcast appearances. As such, she’s an “influencer,” widely cited on current events by leftists ranging from social democrats to plain vanilla Democrats.
So it’s important to look at how she’s used her platform to muddy the waters about Covid-19 and vaccinations. I’ll use two articles as bookends, one before the Covid-19 pandemic started, and another from October 2021. Lastly I’ll consider a third article in which she shames people who are upset with anti-vaxxers and vaccine holdouts.
Pre-pandemic Washington Post article on vaccines and herd immunity
As a devout Catholic, Bruenig frames her arguments about vaccines and pandemics with a moral lens. In her February 14, 2019 pre-Covid pandemic article, she wrote that getting vaccinated is “a moral imperative.” She continued that a “belief in the common good requires individuals at times, to take on risk for the benefit of the community.” What starts out as a seemingly clear endorsement of vaccination bogs down quickly.
When she writes that getting vaccinated means an individual will “take on a risk for the benefit of the community,” Bruenig implies that it is safer for “healthy” people not to get vaccinated but that they should anyway as an act of altruism. This becomes more apparent as we examine the entire argument in her article. It’s a dangerous distortion informing her mistaken conception of herd immunity.
Isolated sections of her description of herd immunity work well enough. “By vaccinating yourself and your children, you help to create the ‘herd immunity’ that protects the most vulnerable.... The lives you save, in other words, may not be your own.” The problem is the way she claims that healthy individuals getting vaccinated are increasing their risk to achieve herd immunity: “take on risk for the benefit of the community.” The opposite is true. The greatest risk to any individual is the virus the vaccine protects you from. Getting vaccinated reduces over all risk of sickness and death to the individual vaccinated, whether “healthy” or not, and to the community.
Some might object “Hang on, she’s just saying that vaccination comes with a risk, not that it increases your risk over all!” Unfortunately, Bruenig’s argument is that vaccines go against “maximizing personal benefit” (see below) and are an act of altruism because they involve taking on more individual risk for the greater good.
Bruenig sees getting vaccinated as going against mere self-interest. She explains that willingness to “take on risk” to help others goes against the rational calculations of her “set.” She describes this set, which includes middle class, white, and the left leaning people: “we describe our choices — political and otherwise — in terms of rationally maximizing personal benefits...” because “everyone acting in their own best interest will thus make society as a whole safer and more peaceful.” She makes clear that she sees vaccination in a separate category from “maximizing personal benefits.” But vaccines do maximize your chances of not getting sick and or dying and therefore your “personal benefits.”
Why Bruenig’s mischaracterizations of risks and herd immunity are dangerous
True herd immunity, through vaccination, occurs when a sufficient percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Without herd immunity, when vaccination levels are low, viruses will spread, infecting both the “unhealthy” and “healthy,” meaning getting vaccinated is not increasing your risk, and is not a sacrifice you make for others. Bruenig’s piece sends the mistaken, and dangerous, message that not getting vaccinated, if you are healthy, results in lower risk to yourself. The opposite is true. The more who get vaccinated, the lower _everyone’s_ risk of getting sick, and of dying. Herd immunity protects all. It’s wrong to characterize getting vaccinated as acting to “take on risk for the benefit of the community.” Vaccines _reduce_ risk both to you and the community.
The dangerous part of Bruenig’s message is not that she says you are helping others when you get vaxxed. You are. It’s when she implies you might have a lower risk of infection and death if you _don’t_ get vaxxed. You won’t. Getting vaccinated helps others, but it also “maximizes personal benefits” no matter what Bruenig implies in her piece.
“In the first two examples, most healthy unimmunized people become infected, whereas in the bottom example only one fourth of the healthy unimmunized people become infected.”
A person might consider her mistaken argument that opting out would mean less risk and decide “Altruism can be good, but in this case I’ll prioritize protecting myself and my immediate family since we’re all healthy.” By lowering the overall rate of vaccinated, they will have increased the likelihood that they too will become infected. Some of them will get sick, and as we’ve seen in the case of Covid-19 large numbers of unvaccinated people die.
October, 2021 Atlantic article on the evils of the Covid vaccine
Bruenig’s more recent Atlantic article is “How Is a Catholic Supposed to Think About the COVID Vaccine?” This article was published on October 8th of 2021, when U.S. vaxx rates were at 56.95% fully vaccinated. The subheading is “The Church’s official teaching on vaccines requires a kind of nuance missing from today’s public life.” Instead of offering that nuance, she serves up a very heavy handed piece discussing gradations of “evil.” How much evil is too much?
Bruenig identifies the moral quandary for Catholics: the current batch of vaccines were developed using a cell line extracted from a fetus aborted in 1973. It is therefore a question of “good and evil.” The good is protecting people from Covid. The “evil” is abortion.
She explains that Catholics as a group are very pro-vaccine. “White Catholics have registered a particularly high rate of vaccine acceptance, with 68 percent already vaccinated or planning to be vaccinated shortly, according to an April survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute.” She notes that even the Pope has given the ok for vaccines.
She really pitches her argument linking abortion, morals, Catholicism, and vaccines in terms of religious values being the main determinant holding some Catholics back as the majority choose vaccination. “Catholics also have reasons particular to their religious views of life, death, good, and evil that sharpen their opposition.” That’s why it’s interesting that the article she linked points out that “attitudes toward the Covid vaccine may be more sharply divided by educational background than by religious belief. Among those with four-year college degrees, 70 percent plan to get the vaccines, compared with 45 percent among those whose education has not gone beyond high school.”
This challenges Bruenig’s premise that her carefully weighing the “evil” of abortion as it relates to Covid vaccines will be an effective method of persuasion.
Her vaccination advocacy stumbles on shame and guilt over abortion. She ponders whether one should be considered “blameworthy” (guilty) of “cooperating with evil” by using the vaccines tracing back to fetal cell line research. Referring to a line of moral thinkers spanning from Paul the Apostle, to Neapolitan priest and philosopher Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s work _Moral Theology_, and finally to “Charles Camosy, a Fordham University theology professor and bioethics specialist,” she decides that it’s acceptable to get the vaccine as a Catholic, if you want to.
It comes down to, as Camosy put it, whether one engages in “formal cooperation with evil” meaning your goals are “aligned with that of the evil-doer’s” or “material cooperation with evil,” in which “one’s will is not so aligned.” Vaccines meet the Camosy criteria as material, not formal cooperation.
Offering the humanizing touch she’s known for, Bruenig refers to the fetus both as a fetus and as “a girl” throughout her article, and quotes a scientist who feels a “warmth and gratefulness to that little child who has contributed so much to science and humanity,” to undergird her thesis that the use of these fetal cells is an act of evil, based on the murder of a girl/child.
Beyond that language of the fetus as a girl, actively making contributions, the more frightening suggestion comes when Bruenig talks about that scientists feeling of gratitude “[n]ot for what happened to the girl, which had already happened by the time they crossed paths and was, at any rate, beyond his control; nor for the cells themselves in a general and undifferentiated utilitarian sense, from which one could deduce a broader argument for reducing the value of people to the usefulness of their organs.” It’s amazing that in the course of this allegedly rational, compassionate, nuanced short essay, we’re asked to start from the premise that vaccines are a part of a broader practice of killing children, and potentially growing humans to harvest their organs out of their living bodies. You can hear the rumble of Catholics running to the nearest CVS for a shot.
The guilt inducing language sits uncomfortably with Bruenig’s condemnation of how current debates are conducted in ways that ignore opposing opinions rather than engage with them: “One of the unloveliest and least enlightening aspects of contemporary discourse is the tendency to presume that whatever one disagrees with must be very simple—not only simple, but also simply wrong; not only wrong, but also false, argued in bad faith....” One must give a good faith and nuanced argument to the child killers and organ harvesters of the world.
The “Stop Death Shaming” article
In this third article, Bruenig presents examples of media coverage about vaccine holdouts, who got Covid and who express either regrets or double down on anti-vaxxer rhetoric. She disingenuously claims the coverage amounts to “death shaming” and or schadenfreude. She begins with a list of seven people who died of Covid-19, “[a]ll unvaccinated, and all whose deaths were covered by various papers and TV stations, with notes of shame or contempt subtle in some tales and bold in others.”
I read the five stories and watched the accompanying embedded TV news reports, about these people she linked to as examples. Written and or presented in a journalistic tone, I could not find the contempt or shaming. The most judgmental analysis came from a nurse, a cousin of one of the women who died along with her husband after opting out of vaccinating. She explains that both her cousin and her husband thought they were young and healthy enough to be able to avoid getting too sick, but they were wrong. The linked stories are about loved ones left behind, people explaining why there were doubts about the safety of vaccines, victims advocating on their death beds that others get vaccinated, friends and community giving support, about what to do next, as well as fond remembrances of these Covid victims, etc.
In the report about “a beloved Baldwin County mother and twirling coach” who died of Covid, her death is said to have given many of her close friends reason to rethink their own belief that they did not need to get vaccinated. Why Bruenig would link to this story as an example of how highlighting the regrets of unvaccinated people who end up dying of Covid-19 cannot be an effective tool to persuade others to get the vaccine is anyone’s guess.
She also links to three articles about people who either got breakthrough Covid or who are worried about contracting the virus and who are angry, disappointed, or confused at the vaccine holdouts. Some were sad that so many refused to participate in the effort to reach vaccine induced herd immunity. There is no sign of what Bruenig describes as “glee at the radically false notion that dying of an illness is a form of moral comeuppance.” The harshest words I could find in those three articles had to do with believing it was time to start blaming those who are not vaccinated but who could be safely, for the ongoing pandemic.
The “Death Shaming” Bruenig alleges seems a lot like the right wing use of “cancel culture.” With cancel culture, it’s very often people who got called out for making bigoted statements claiming victimhood. With death shaming, Bruenig performs a similar reversal of responsibility. She takes “maybe we should learn from those who refused vaccination and changed their minds” and makes it “we’re enjoying the suffering of these idiots who wouldn’t listen to us.” There is no death shaming in the reports she links to in her article.
It’s understood by many that it doesn’t provide much insight to blame individual’s bad choices for the mass scope of the pandemic. As banal as it is to say, this is a failure of the global capitalist class to deal with Covid-19. But it’s also true that people who burned masks, who held massive unmasked gatherings, who insisted on opening businesses and public spaces during pandemic spikes, who spread misinformation that the pandemic was fake news, or who refused vaccines based on MAGA disinformation hold some responsibility for the mass death that ensued. Frustration, disappointment, sadness, and anger are all legitimate emotional responses to their actions even for those who seek the political and social analyses regarding the failed pandemic response and to do better now and the next time.
In the Death Shaming article Bruenig makes an affected appeal to her own authority as someone truly concerned with salt of the earth normal Joes, the real workers, unlike the callous media elites who “gleefully” celebrate their deaths. She conducts a kind of workers inquiry of one, reaching out to talk to her auto mechanic uncle who had refused the vaccine up to that point. “Last week, I called one of my uncles, who works in auto repair in North Texas. Chris is an honest, fair, and kind-hearted person, the easygoing one in a family of tightly wound people. When I asked him why he and his wife had chosen not to get a shot yet, he said they were still thinking about it.”
It’s hard to say whether her description of him is obsequious or condescending but it is definitely intended to show she’s deferential toward workers. She asked him what he thought instead of speaking for him. She went to the source. Coincidentally her uncle’s main concern is about whether or not fetal cells are used in the vaccines, something Bruenig has focussed on in her writing. When she explains that the Church is fine with vaccines and that there are no fetal cells in the vaccine itself, her uncle seems willing to think about it a bit more.
She concludes that listening to the concerns of the holdouts, and giving information they might have missed is a better approach than “the darker, harder political emotions that dominate our discourse now.” But we’ve seen the darker and harder approach, the alleged “glee” and schadenfreude expressed by the media or the public at the deaths of the unvaccinated was not present in the sources she linked to as examples.
We do find a lot of shaming in her own writing on the pandemic. When she mischaracterizes herd immunity, she leaves an open door to opt out of using the “evil” developed from research based on killing children and maybe even organ harvesting. The whole thing seems really disingenuous. It becomes apparent that Bruenig is using the pandemic to score anti-woke points and paint the left as out of touch elites who can’t persuade people to get vaccinated because they refuse to listen to them and address their concerns. Never mind the evidence in her own sources that people are swayed to get the vaccine after seeing others die in at least some cases. And we should not forget that these concerns have been addressed by scientists, politicians, activists, friends, officials, etc. directly over the course of the pandemic to little effect. That is not to rubber stamp the actions of any of those groups, but anyone paying attention who does not by now know the virus is real and that vaccines are the best protection, for self and community, is most likely under the sway of right wing political ideology or reading Elizabeth Bruenig regularly. In the end, Bruenig’s arguments leave millions open to the mistaken belief that they might choose to opt out of vaccination in order to lower their chances of negative health outcomes. It’s incredibly dangerous.