Though I certainly don’t relish this opportunity to comment on it, creating and building a project about beliefs, myths, and narratives in the South during the COVID-19 pandemic has offered many eye-opening examples of how powerful these forces are in our culture. For a variety of social, cultural, political, and personal reasons, both virus denials and vaccine hesitancy have been particularly prominent in the South. In 2020, refusals to comply with public health mandates were commonplace. In 2021, low vaccination rates are leading to a resurgence of COVID-19 in our region, as well as to renewed questions about how schools will function and whether mask mandates should return. And of course, responses to those medical and logistical realities are usually rooted in a person’s or community’s beliefs and in the narratives supporting those beliefs.
I have been particularly intrigued over the last year or so to hear people – ordinary folks and public officials – making pronouncements about acting based on the findings of science. My (somewhat rhetorical) question has been: were we doing that before? Nutritionists arrive at their conclusions using science then they tell us to avoid fast food, processed foods, sodas— things that many Southerners eat regularly. Speed limits are also decided-upon and set using a scientific process that involves braking time, population density, and road conditions, but I see drivers exceed speed limits every day. Somehow, though, there has been a sudden expectation that people are going to . . . make good decisions based on the recommendations of scientists? No, we’re going to continue doing what we always did: make decisions based on what we believe and tell ourselves. (And based on what we can afford, but that’s another issue.) Furthermore, some people are also going to take the additional step of adding to the narratives by publicly criticizing, judging, lamenting, shaming, lambasting, and blaming the people who follow narratives that oppose their own.
For my part, I’ve also been paying attention to how new myths are being created. For example, the oversimplified proclamation that we can’t require people to wear safety equipment that they don’t want to wear. We already do that with seat belts, motorcycle helmets, and children’s bicycle helmets. And what is the rationale for those mandates? They offer protection from harm and, in some cases, save lives. Seat belt laws are on the books in every Southern state, and motorcycle helmets are required by law in most Southern states. However, some Southern leaders declare that a mask mandate is a violation of people’s’ freedom, which is a narrative that supports the decision to refuse to wear a mask. The pretense is that it’s a principled stand over constitutional values. What I think it really is: I don’t want to. (I believe this, in part, because I made similar claims when seat belt laws were implemented in Alabama, and I initially refused to wear one.)
Part of what interested me to create a project like Nobody’s Home is a fascination with the myriad ways that people’s beliefs, myths, and narratives intertwine and intersect, sometimes exposing blatant contradictions in logic, and eventually leading to the behaviors that add up to form our culture. The older I get, the more I live and read and pay attention, the more I lean toward the Zen-like notion – also expressed vividly in the Book of Ecclesiastes – that almost nothing in this limited, imperfect life makes sense. And, to be candid, very little about the COVID-19 pandemic has. As people have gotten sick, lost jobs, suffered mental health issues, and even died, the anti-government and personal-freedom beliefs in Southern culture have brought their full weight to bear on this crisis, not as an aid in solving the problem but as a burden to be suffered alongside it. And I’ve watched while a multitude of people on TV and on social media, in state houses and in pulpits, at school board meetings and at political rallies, with expertise and without it, have insisted that their own beliefs should become the ultimate truth for everyone. But let’s face it, all we’ve really seen is: people are gon’ do what they’re gon’ do.
Below is a smattering of news articles from recent months about this very topic, there for your reading pleasure if you so chose.
“Talk radio host hospitalized with COVID regrets vaccine hesitancy, brother says,” from PBS NewsHour (July 23, 2021)
“A conservative talk radio host from Tennessee who had been a vaccine skeptic until he was hospitalized from COVID-19 now says his listeners should get vaccinated.”
“The Threat of an Unvaccinated South,” in The Atlantic (July 22, 2021)
“A recent study by researchers at Georgetown University, led by Shweta Bansal, an associate professor and an infectious-disease expert, identified locations where vaccination rates are lower than the national average, and crucially, that are also surrounded by other areas with low vaccination rates. They homed in on five specific regions, which they say are the most vulnerable to future outbreaks; four are in the Southeast, and one lies just adjacent. One area they pinpointed is a cluster of counties that covers the majority of southeast Alabama, stretching into Georgia and Florida; another spans the northwest part of Alabama into northwest Mississippi and Tennessee; a third covers the boot heel of Missouri and into north Arkansas; and a fourth cluster in north and west Louisiana stretches into east Texas.”
“State health director says COVID ‘myths’ hinder vaccination efforts,” from The Greenville News (July 21, 2021)
“South Carolina’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise and it is primarily now an infection affecting the unvaccinated and fueled by myths, the state’s public health director said Wednesday.”
“What’s really behind vaccine hesitancy in Alabama” from WBRC-TV (July 13, 2021)
‘“I just don’t know enough about it. I’m scared of it and I really don’t know if there’s been enough study about it to really to get it,’ Robertson said.”
“Appalachian covid deniers anger nurses in Virginia,” from The Washington Post (July 6, 2021)
“Conspiracy theories about the pandemic and lies recited on social media — or at White House news conferences — had penetrated deep into their community. When refrigerated trailers were brought in to relieve local hospitals’ overflowing morgues, people said they were stage props. Agitated and unmasked relatives stood outside the ICU insisting that their intubated relatives only had the flu. Many believed the doctors and nurses hailed elsewhere for their sacrifices were conspiring to make money by falsifying covid-19 diagnoses.”
“‘We’re seeing collective denial’: COVID-19 continues to spread in Mississippi,” from WAPT-TV (December 1, 2020)
“‘Because we’re not seeing collective belief. We’re seeing collective denial,’ [state health officer Dr. Thomas] Dobbs said.”