Healing happens when we think of others first

By Paul Isom, Guest Columnist
Posted 8/18/21

I felt angry when I first read of people choosing not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As this newspaper recently reported, 91% of confirmed COVID cases in Chatham County, where I shop and attend church, …

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Healing happens when we think of others first

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I felt angry when I first read of people choosing not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As this newspaper recently reported, 91% of confirmed COVID cases in Chatham County, where I shop and attend church, were diagnosed among those not fully vaccinated since May 1.

Then I realized those people reminded me of me.

I went many years choosing not to get another vaccine against another killer disease — the flu. I had lots of reasons. First, I rarely had more than the sniffles. Plus, I had a private belief that I could overcome sickness by mere force of will. And finally, I never really liked getting shots. So all of those reasons and justifications kept me out of the pharmacy and a needle out of my arm for years.

Sure enough, the flu swept through every year, and most years I avoided it — until 2010 when I missed almost a week of work barely able to move, unable to eat and suffering all of the other associated symptoms. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

I was binge-watching television to distract me from my aching body when I heard a rap on the front door. Through the glass panes I could see my 95-year-old neighbor. He had noticed I hadn’t gone to work for a few days, deduced I was sick and had brought me some home-cooked food. Through the door, he couldn’t quite hear me telling him I had the flu. He insisted on coming in to make sure I got the food. We visited for a few minutes and he left. It was several weeks later that I learned he contracted the flu as well. He recovered, but I was guilt-stricken that I had given it to someone so vulnerable.

Yet, I still hadn’t gotten the message and didn’t until 2018 when I read a column by Dr. Aaron Carroll titled, “Still not convinced you need a flu shot? First, it’s not all about you.”

In it, Carroll pointed out most flu deaths happen to children and the elderly. That’s part of the reason it’s fairly common for people my age to think they have nothing to worry about when it comes to the flu. In fact, those were the writer’s exact words. “If you fall into one of the lower-risk groups (i.e., adults age 18-50), you might still think that the flu isn’t such a big deal, and that you don’t need to worry much.”

He followed those words with the ones that changed my mind: “You don’t get immunized just to protect yourself. You also get immunized to protect those who can’t protect themselves.”

And clearly, what Carroll wrote in 2018 about flu applies today for COVID-19 as Chatham County’s case count per 100,000 population has doubled in the past week and a half, according to the county public health director.

Yet, there are still people out there who openly resist getting the vaccine. And that’s frustrating to those of us who realize the vaccine can help avoid lockdowns, open schools, save lives and end the pandemic. But the Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman, whose column space I’m inadequately filling today, helped me turn my frustration into something more hopeful in a recent sermon. While it’s painful to watch the hostility over the vaccine and the lack of unity regarding what is clearly the common good, that’s no excuse for inaction. He cited Psalm 130 that illustrates a community acting together for the good of all people.

“There are as many reasons for hope as there are people who are willing to be courageous … and seek healing and wholeness,” Taylor-Troutman said. “We find the courage to do this even when it is painful.”

So, if I’m honest with myself, I understand how people may feel they have a defense against contracting the coronavirus. Maybe they’re in a low-risk group. Maybe they protect themselves in other ways. Maybe they’re just busy. Or maybe they don’t like needles.

But the more hopeful, helpful message is the same one the columnist made about the flu. The COVID-19 vaccine is not primarily for me as a healthy, middle-aged man. We get vaccinated to protect children and babies. We get vaccinated to protect our older parents, grandparents and friends.

We get the vaccine for our 95-year-old neighbor who we want to be able to welcome into our home without fear of making him sick — or worse.

Paul Isom lives in Chapel Hill and teaches journalism at N.C. State.

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