Suicide Watch

I’ve heard it said everyone has a novel in them. I’m not sure I do, but I did once have an idea for a plot I’ll never write, that might be playing out in American reality.

My slightly macabre, Huxley-like, idea imagined a society where every adult citizen was issued with a suicide pill. The number of people killing themselves would then be used as an indication of the level of happiness and inform politicians about the need, or otherwise, for change.

Of course, to some extent, the appalling spikes in suicides (and other forms of self-harm) in many places, particularly among young people, already makes a fictional book on the subject un-necessary and possibly in poor taste.

After three months here, it has slowly dawned on me that millions of people are not doing the thing that could potentially save their lives. Suicide by COVID.

I understand some vaccine hesitancy and would be reluctant to condemn people who choose not to get jabbed. But, unless we are subject to an unprecedented sociopathic conspiracy, the scientific evidence appears pretty conclusive that the COVID vaccines (along with other measures) are safe and effective.

But about half of Americans are not vaccinated and its considerably more in some parts of the country. The saturation news coverage relentlessly carries stories of infections and deaths rising among the unvaccinated, but it doesn’t appear to be making much difference.

There are many complex reasons for this, including regional, ethnic and cultural variations. However, it increasingly feels to me that what this really means is a loss of political credibility and trust on a massive scale.

In the aftermath of a President who represented a rejection (albeit fake) of the political establishment, this is perhaps no surprise and there is a clear correlation between vaccine refusal and Trump support. Moreover, some of the right-wing reactionaries hoping to inherit Trump’s tarnished crown are politicising efforts to combat the virus in the most cynical way.

However, this would get less traction if it wasn’t playing to some deeply held American values and social forces. The concept of personal liberty is certainly deeply ingrained, but I think there may be less obvious reasons to be found in the interplay between a highly medicalised and consumerised society.

From a British perspective, the television adverts for medical products here are very strange. They are constant, for everything from constipation to cancer, but they all go into lengthy detail about possible side effects. Having told people that a drug could improve their lives, they often go on to say they could cause death! Seeing health as just another consumer product, with a “buyer beware” type warning, must lead to a very confused mindset.

Another extreme paradox is that many Americans who resist admitting a particular substance into their body, consume food and a lifestyle that are full of chemicals, pollutants and risk, not least the massive ingestion of opioids, itself a clear indication of a society that isn’t happy with itself.

But it’s also a society that’s deeply divided and it feels like vaccines and anti-COIVD measures have become another political fault-line. The pandemic has become a bizarre form of asymmetric civil war.

Despite rising infections and death, with the possibility of further lockdowns being mooted, the bombardment of pro-vaccine messaging isn’t cutting through with lots of people. It probably doesn’t help that the messengers are so obviously associated with precisely the authorities that are so widely discredited. This screen-shot from CNN last night sums that up. Ordering people to look after themselves rarely works.

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