When COVID hit Italy so badly back in the winter of 2020, I recall praying hard that a vaccine could be developed, as quickly as possible, so that the kind of devastation that a worldwide pandemic can induce would be avoided. As a classical liberal who spends a lot of time trying to convince people that things are actually getting much better in general, I was indeed hopeful that our incredibly sophisticated medical community could solve this problem. After all, given our globalized economy, scientists were already anticipating such an eventuality. They just needed to know the details—would it be influenza? corona?—in order to create vaccines and treatments. While there’s plenty of room for serious consternation about the healthcare market, medical advancement stands among the most astounding improvements in the quality of life over the past century.
In a recent interview, Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and a man of outspoken Christian faith, described how the COVID vaccine was developed so quickly: the relevant scientists dropped everything else they were doing, eschewed concerns over who would get credit, and put the most cutting-edge ideas through a rigorous scientific process in 11 months—five times faster than any vaccine had been developed before. The speed resulted not from cutting corners but from the all-hands-on-deck attitude of the nation’s, and indeed the world’s, scientists. Historically, bad reactions to vaccines appear within two months, so it was possible to move forward safely. These vaccines were an answer to the prayers of millions of people all over the world, not only because they worked but also because of the very speed with which they were developed.
By the time we achieved this momentous goal, however, the whole issue of COVID had become contentious and politicized. Arguments ensued over masking, the questionable legality of local and state ordinances, unfair enforcement, and economic lockdowns that destroyed small businesses. Many of these arguments were totally valid. It is not just to shut down churches while allowing casinos to stay open. It is not safer to shut down small businesses only to cram all the shoppers into Target and Walmart. It is not difficult to justify the frustration and anger of those whose life’s work or means of making a living was destroyed over the course of just a few months due to the arbitrary will of some local politician. We will be living with the (deeply unequal) consequences of these poor decisions for years to come.
But something funny happened on the way to herd immunity. The association of counter-COVID measures with heavy-handed and, in some cases, simply illegal interference in the lives and businesses of citizens caused some people to turn against anything meant to address the pandemic. Some argued that the pandemic itself was some kind of hoax—a true illness, yes, but nothing worse than the annual flu. Even voluntary masking to avoid coughing or sneezing on others became a “symbol of obsequious obedience and grotesque compliance with arbitrary and ignorant authority,” according to the most libertarian among us. The new vaccines came under immediate suspicion, including conspiracy theories that Bill Gates is using them to track us, that they are the biblical “mark of the beast,” that they are actually responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, and that the pharmaceutical companies are just out to make a buck. Although the appearance of the new variants and the need for a booster are all perfectly normal eventualities in the world of epidemiology, these developments were also treated with deep suspicion.
Then again, government messaging on all things COVID-related was a real mess. “Two weeks to stop the spread” didn’t exactly pan out; “masks aren’t necessary” turned into “masks are 100% necessary” in a confusing flip-flop; it was racist to say that the virus leaked out of a Wuhan lab or originated in Chinese “wet markets” until scientists confirmed that one of those theories is likely correct; the issue of school closings was politicized by the teachers’ unions; and many government officials claimed powers they quite straightforwardly did not have. The public quickly picked up that Dr. Fauci’s announcements served to control behavior more than to communicate the latest, honest updates on scientist’s understanding of the virus. All this contributed to a general atmosphere of information chaos that ginned up suspicion.
Unfortunately, the backlash has had the ironic consequence of slowing our progress toward getting life back to normal. While we need something like 85% of the nation’s population to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity, we have not even reached 60% as of late November 2021, although adults are at a hopeful 70%. These delays mean we can all enjoy the continuation of the arguments over lockdowns and mandates for the foreseeable future instead of returning to life as normal, a nice example of shooting oneself in the foot if I’ve ever seen one. While anti-COVID-vax ideas aren’t limited to any one demographic, the most hesitant group turns out to be those who identify as conservative. This should strike us as odd.
One hardly knows how to define the term conservative these days, but I always insist on returning to Russell Kirk’s wonderful idea of the “reflective conservative.” The reflective conservative is not a mere reactionary. She is not against any and all change but is rather suspicious of sudden or revolutionary change that threatens to upend hard-won customs and traditions. It is often said that the great virtue of the conservative is gratitude, because she is thankful to all those who came before her and for all we’ve inherited from them. For this reason, the conservative recognizes multiple sources of authority appropriate to the distinct parts of our lives, whether family, work, church, state, or academy. The conservative is anxious to preserve what is necessary for stability and flourishing, and so favors slow and prudent reform. Most of all, the conservative believes that there is such a thing as truth, and that discovering it is part of what makes life worth living.
Hopefully one can immediately see that to be a conservative in Kirk’s sense requires much nuance. The conservative is not an ideologue. He cannot be defined by adherence to some abstract set of principles nor does he make decisions by appeal to simplistic platitudes. Instead, the true conservative must be a person of deep practical wisdom, one who utilizes his imagination to weigh the merits of contending considerations. One reason that being a conservative is often associated with being older is that older people have enough experience in life to understand the way we must take circumstances into account to make virtuous choices.
The truth is that COVID is quite real; if we compare overall deaths over the past two years to the periods just prior, we find that we recently passed the one million excess death mark. The truth is also that these vaccines work pretty well and they are not dangerous for most people. The truth is that the vast majority of those hospitalized for COVID today are unvaccinated, while breakthrough cases among the vaccinated generally result in far less serious illness. Furthermore, if Bill Gates wanted to track you, he would just do it through your phone. I also doubt that anyone will take on the mark of the beast without realizing they are doing so.
Like myself, many conservatives have been profoundly grateful for the vaccines. They see them as the divine intervention of a God who answers prayer and uses those of us who are better off in developed economies to serve our neighbors among those who are much worse off in the world. They see them as the fruit of a well-functioning scientific community that still manages to be motivated by the common good rather than mere money or status. They see them as the fruit of a bustling global market that has created incomprehensibly stunning distribution systems to get medicine to the farthest reaches of the earth. They are wise enough to distinguish between what is a truly good and praiseworthy solution on the one hand, and what is only an excuse for some to increase their power and control over others on the other hand. They distinguish wisely between the authority of medical expertise, economic expertise, and that of the state. Each of these has its place and ought not overstep its bounds.
Not all those who call themselves conservative have maintained the proper sense of gratitude or made the necessary distinctions. Some have raised ethical objections over the fact that these vaccines were developed using fetal cell lines that were taken from an aborted fetus 50 years ago. In response, the Vatican reiterated the position it has held with regard to the Rubella vaccine and many other medications that have been developed from the same fetal cell line: all people of good will should campaign for ethically developed medication, but taking the vaccine does not constitute moral cooperation with abortion. Even those conscientious objectors who persist, though, do not constitute a significant part of the conservative anti-COVID-vax movement. Instead, many are misled by the deluge of outlandish claims being made, sometimes by those who seemed trustworthy in the past. Others are simply collapsing two issues into one: the genuine problem of government overreach through lockdowns and mandates, and the medical claims around vaccine safety.
These are strange times, and conservatives ought to lead the charge against false claims, irrational fear, sloppy thinking, and those who sow seeds of distrust in the body politic. The true conservative knows that trust in institutional stability is fragile yet deeply necessary. Like the old story from church about the drowning man who won’t take the raft, the boat, or the helicopter that God sends, awaiting a “miracle,” some so-called conservatives seem to appreciate neither the seriousness of our situation nor the solution on offer. And that is a failure to practice the virtues of prudence and of gratitude—the very virtues distinct to the conservative mind.