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A Healthy Shot of Skepticism

by | Aug 8, 2021

Ugh. Here we go again…

After 18 months of denial, protesting regulations, anti-masking and anti-vaxing, Republican Maine State Rep. Chris Johansen and his wife have reportedly contracted particularly bad cases of COVID-19.

Can something be so cliché it is no longer cliché? Eighteen months into this, and my reactions to these kinds of stories range from a sincere hope they don’t die to a shrug emoji. I wish I had more for them, but I just don’t. People like that have shown themselves to be immoveable. They fully embrace a culture that prioritizes personal identity over the idea of even acknowledging a shared reality. And so, that’s it for them. They are going to continue to get sick and die and spread COVID. They’re going to get others sick, people will die because of them, and there’s no convincing them to care.

Instead of banging my head against that wall, I’d like to focus on the other unvaccinated adults. That’s right, the conspiracy theorists aren’t the only ones. You may not like this, but there are people in this country who have perfectly understandable reasons for not being vaccinated. For example, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from April showed that roughly a third of unvaccinated folks avoided the shot because they weren’t sure how much it cost.

Yes, I can hear you screaming. It’s free! It’s free! I know, I know. A couple things, though. First off, surprise medical bills have been ruining lives in this country for a very long time, so this type of presumptive reluctance shouldn’t shock anyone. Secondly, many people across the country actually have been getting charged for the vaccine. Each dose, too. As far back as December, these “accidental” charges have been reported by everyone from local news agencies to The New York Times. By the way, back in September the Times ran a story about how the “free” COVID tests also often came with a surprise bill — sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars. None of this should shock you, either.

Many people believe it’s as simple as “trusting science” when that’s not really what’s being asked. What’s actually being asked is to trust the systems that deliver, interpret, and often define that science, frequently according to their own convenience. The pharmaceutical industry itself is one of these systems. Remember 18 months ago, when Big Pharma was continuing its 40+ year-long stint as Public Enemy No. 1? I do. Also, for my entire life I’ve watched drug commercials with sped-up lists of side effects often worse than the illness they’re supposed to treat. Does anyone remember the opioid crisis we’re still in, worsened by the pandemic? Perhaps you’re starting to see why trust in this particular system will be hard-earned.

Also, if we’re being fair here, it’s not as though governments are giving us straight answers, either. As I write this, the WHO, CDC, the president and our Maine state government all have completely different recommendations regarding masks. Are we to believe it’s a matter of opinion?

And then there are the variants and breakthroughs. According to the CDC, the breakthrough-infection rate for the Delta variant is currently 0.098%. Unfortunately, the CDC is only tracking breakthrough cases resulting in hospitalizations or death, so that estimation is, at the very least, incomplete. Preventing hospitalization and death are what make the vaccines so valuable, but disabilities from long-COVID — including heart, lung and brain damage — aren’t yet fully understood, let alone successfully treated. Perhaps the argument of “COVID won’t kill you… Can’t really do anything about the brain damage, though,” isn’t as motivating as you’d like?

I’ve been fully vaccinated since May, but it was a difficult decision. It is not an exaggeration to say that every single medical advancement to come out of this country has come at the expense of unwilling Black bodies. It is also not an exaggeration when I tell you that every experience I have ever had with the medical industry has been comprehensively racist. Adding my own personal experience to the entirety of American history told me I should wait a while longer. But in the end, I feared the elderly people in my life could pass without me ever seeing them again. I got vaccinated and it felt risky. It still does.

The medical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the U.S. government have each brought immeasurable death and misery into the homes of countless Americans. Expecting us all to blindly trust not just one, but all of them together is, to put it lightly, a big ask. Until we make those institutions trustworthy, the ask is only going to get bigger.


Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at

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