A couple years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world the way the Chicxulub meteor collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out 75 percent of plant and animal life, including dinosaurs. If it were up to those contemporary dinosaurs refusing to get vaccines or denying the seriousness of the global pandemic, we’d lumber toward extinction like the previous custodians of the Earth.
Despite my decades of fighting the kind of voluntary ignorance that allows racism to still have such a stranglehold on our country, I’ve maintained a cautious optimism about people. I believe when given the opportunity most want to do the right thing. But that optimism has been greatly tested these past few months as I see so many people refusing to protect their families, their communities, and their country.
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Let’s start with these facts: 4.55 million people in the world have died from COVID-19, 688,000 of them in the U.S. To put it in perspective, US deaths from COVID-19 are more than twice that of US military deaths in World War II. And it keeps growing by about 7,500 deaths every day. So far, more than 42 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with about 120,000 more new cases each day.
Magic Johnson gets vaccinated against COVID-19.
COVID-19 has changed how we live, how we work, how we play, how we interact with family and friends. It has pummeled the economy with daily body blows, some of them below the belt.
And yet, we rise.
We rise because we have the intellectual ability to learn from the past and we have the instinctual drive to protect our children and preserve humanity. The world has faced the cruelty of pandemics in the past: the 14th Century’s Black Plague killed between 75 and 200 million people, the Spanish Flu killed between 17 and 100 million people, and so on. Each time we study, we analyze, we devise solutions. We do this through science. And each time, science has to fight the ignorance of the people it is trying to save as vigorously as it fights the diseases killing them. It’s like diving into the lake to save a drowning man who refuses to take off his ankle weights. Worse, he’s holding onto his children while he’s sinking.
And yet, we rise. We rise because we refuse to let that man drown, even if it’s his fault. Even if he wants to. Because, as poet John Donne said, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man/is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” We are all interconnected—our fates are interwoven.
Which is why it’s so shocking and disappointing to see so many people, especially people of color, treat the vaccination like it’s just a matter of personal preference, like ordering no onions on your burger at a drive-thru. While I can understand the vaccine hesitancy of those who have been historically marginalized and even abused by the health care system, enough scientific documentation has been given to the public to set that past behind us for now. Yes, we should never forget. Those experiences should sharpen our critical thinking to not accept things blindly. But it doesn’t mean we reject things blindly. The drowning man doesn’t ask if a racist made the life preserver keeping him afloat, only that it works to save his life.
Athletes and other celebrities have a public platform to help alleviate this crisis and to save lives. To not take on that responsibility harms the sports and entertainment industries, the community, and the country. Those who claim they need to do “more research” are simply announcing they have done no research, because the overwhelming consensus of immunologists and other medical experts is that the vaccine is effective and safe. And will prevent the unnecessary deaths of thousands. As I’ve said before, this position only perpetuates the stereotype of the dumb jock who’s only in sports for the money. It dehumanizes the victims as nothing more than political fodder.
The anti-expert stance that anti-vaxxers take reveals the fuzziest of thinking. Everyone expects scientists to solve all of our main problems: global warming, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Unless these same experts tell us we have to actually do something to help fix the problems. Then we stop trusting them. But I assure you that when an athlete has a broken leg or heart attack or their child is in an accident, they don’t say to the doctors, “Don’t do anything until I do more research.” They beg the medical experts to help.
The dark reality is that those who promote hesitancy and “more research” have blood on their hands. Worse, the kind of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience pundits spread is the kind of selective “science” that white people used to justify enslaving Black people. Drapetomania was a malady coined by a doctor in 1851: slaves ran away because of their smaller brains and blood vessels combined with their natural tendencies toward indolence and barbarism. This theory lasted for a hundred years. Many other “scientific” ideas about Black inferiority have been spread throughout America’s history and are still popular today. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-LGBTQ+ all thrive in the addled minds of flat-Earth thinking. For Black athletes or entertainers to give this same anti-vax pseudo-science any oxygen is to allow the other crackpot theories to co-exist that justify marginalizing others.
If individual athletes can’t muster the courage to do the right thing, then the NBA and every other league governing body must step in and mandate vaccinations for players, coaches, and staff in order to protect the team, the fans, and the community. Players are free to choose not to get vaccinated, but they should have the courage of their moral convictions to sit out the season, sustained in the righteousness of their choice. They’ve already proven they are not team players.
John Donne also wrote that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” We must all step up to help each other, not just because it’s practical for our survival, but because it’s a shared value that enriches us. Isaac Hayes high-fives Donne’s sentiment in “Theme from Shaft” when he says, “Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?”
That’s why we rise.