Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
James Longman: It is a battle here in Tokyo, a battle to keep Coronavirus out of the Olympics but every day, we're hearing about new cases.
Lee Powell: No spectators allowed inside venues to cheer on athletes.
Thomas Bach: Even in Japan, there was never 100% support of Olympic games or of any other event.
Announcer: 88, that means he can come back.
Charlie Kirk: We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles.
Shaina Humphries: Trenton native, Athing Mu is taking home an Olympic gold medal.
Darren Geeter: Congress argue hosting the games does very little for the betterment of a city.
Norah O’Donnell: That Delta variant, it can infect twice as many people as the original strain of COVID.
Lee Powell: An Olympics like no other in a time, like no other.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright, the Tokyo Olympics held its closing ceremony earlier today. It'll be on TV later tonight here in the US wrapping up an Olympic game that was, by all accounts, every bit as strange and off-kilter as everything else about life right now. The name said it all, Tokyo 2020. It is, of course, 2021, but the games remain defiantly branded for last year. There's something about this effort to go back in time and reclaim what we lost while somehow else still moving forward that says everything about where we are right now, just a dissonance that feels omnipresent.
If sport is a metaphor for life, as it is often said, what can we learn about ourselves from the world of sports right now? About a year ago, I talked to sports columnist, Dave Zirin about the eruption of political activism in sports. This week feels like a good time to check back in with our friend, Dave, and see what, if anything, we can learn from sports over the past year. Dave, welcome back to the show.
Dave Zirin: Oh, it's great to be here. Thanks so much for having me, Kai.
Kai: Dave Zirin is the host of The Edge of Sports podcast. He writes a column for The Nation and has written 10, count them, 10 books about the politics of sports. This is his jam. He is the man for this conversation. Dave, just on the level of competition and achievement, what did you think of the Olympics? What was the most exciting thing you saw?
Dave: I'm most excited about the fact that they're done. I've got all the respect in the world to the athletes themselves and their efforts to expand the very concept of human limitations or lack thereof. I've got all the respect in the world for the coaches who put forth the effort to get these athletes ready. I have all the respect in the world for the people who are on the ground in Tokyo, trying to make them as safe as possible. The fact of the matter is these were the pandemic games and they were not safe. Yes, they pulled it off but I would argue at too high a price.
I'm not talking about the upwards of 400 people who came to Tokyo for the Olympics inside the Olympics, so-called bubble, who'd ended up catching COVID anyway. I'm talking about the city of Tokyo and the price that they have paid for hosting the games. I'm not talking about the debt displacement and militarization of public space that accompanies every Olympics. I'm talking about the COVID numbers. Over 5,000 in Tokyo, that's a record. It's very connected to the Olympics being there in some very complex and interesting ways. I realize I'm talking a lot. The minute-
Kai: No, you’re here to talk.
Dave: -the Olympics led to a couple of very interesting conversely intuitive things in the city of Tokyo. First of all, Japan did very well in these Olympics and that led to--
Kai: As a team?
Dave Zirin: Yes, as a team. Yes, as a country. Thank you, that's very import--. Japan, as a country, set a record for number of medals that it's ever gotten at an Olympics. What that did was it drummed up tremendous interest in the city of Tokyo which meant that people were breaking certain state of emergency laws around COVID. Bars were staying open later. There were reports of that they were putting black construction paper on the windows. Officials and police officers couldn't see inside while people gathered to watch the games.
That led to a lot of super spreader many events throughout the city that otherwise would not have happened. The other issue is that, and this is terrible, you see, Japan has a tremendous concept as a nation, culturally of public health. That's why, even though it's a very unvaccinated country, their COVID numbers are not nearly as bad, for example, as the United States because people took masking seriously, people took the state of emergency seriously, but there was so much heartbreak I would say, or disillusionment's a better word over the staging of the Olympics.
Even though 80% of the country said in one poll that they should be postponed because of the pandemic, there was so much disillusionment that there's a thumbing your nose at the government. The support level in Japan is now 34%, very low for Japan where people are just like, "Okay, wow, another state of emergency for the Olympics, well, heck with you. I'm going to go out and do whatever I want," and-
Kai: Whatever I want.
Dave: -the results have been catastrophic.
Kai: It's hard to argue with everything you've just said, Dave, you know when we're talking about lives but it does feel like our first metaphor of this conversation, I was just like zooming out from the Olympics, it just feels like this is something we're constantly facing about what we're giving up versus what we're not giving up. I've heard people say, "Okay, but these athletes, this is their one shot. They've spent their whole lives preparing for this moment. If we didn't have these games, there's something important that was going to be lost." Speaking as somebody who does value that, you're saying it was that it's not as important as the stakes of staying quarantined?
Dave: No, what they should have done if they had to do the Olympics and I get that, I'm a sports writer. I love, my goodness, watching Allyson Felix was practically religious in my household and seeing her get to 11 medals and beat Carl Lewis at age 35 after a certain shoe company wouldn't even sponsor her because she'd had a child. That belongs in Hollywood as much as it belongs in Tokyo, so many of the stores, Simone Biles, you mentioned at the top of the show. The Italian 4*100 sprint team for goodness sakes. That was some so mighty fast folks from Italy. That was unbelievable.
I did not know that they built for speed like that really unless it was a race car or something. There was a lot there on the level of human achievement that was amazing. It's just the logical response to COVID would have been, "Okay, let's not sacrifice a generation of athletes who've trained for this moment. Let's model ourselves after what the NBA did a year ago, let's find ourselves a bubble somewhere, and let's actually do these games right. Let's do them on the isle of Malta. Let's do them in the Seychelles. Who cares? Let's just get them away from a densely populated city with very low vaccination rates.
It's like anywhere, but there, please. The problem though, Kai is that, and this is my problem with the whole Olympic industrial complex is that they'd already invested, the government of Japan and various sponsors somewhere between $20 and $30 billion in this project. There was just no pulling back from that, at that point. As my friend Morgan Campbell put it so well, he said, "We, sometimes, describe the Olympics as too big to fail. What if they're too big to succeed?"
Kai: Ooh, wow. It suggests that it's not, in fact, about the athletes and the generation of athletes, but rather about that financial investment that made it imperative.
Dave: It's like John Carlos of the '68 Olympics, my dear friend, he raised his fist at those games. He always says, "Do you know why they only have the summer Olympics every four years, it's because it takes four years to count all the money."
Kai: [chuckles] Well, okay. A year ago, we were speaking of someone like John Carlos. A year ago, you and I were talking about athletes and stars, sort of modeling political speech, we'll get back to that specifically. Now, particularly with these Olympics, one thing that has come up is modeling mental health and athletes asserting their right to take care of themselves. I wonder if those two things are connected.
I want to play a clip. Last week on the takeaway hosts, Melissa Harris-Perry had a conversation about mental health with former Olympic gymnast, Dominique Dawes. She said something about the culture of gymnastics and maybe about the culture of Olympics overall that I want you to hear. Listen to this.
Dominique Dawes: There is a focus on perfectionism and there is constant critique. You were always at a young age, taught to strive for that perfect 10. There was always a focus on what you did wrong and not enough focus on what you did right. As a young gymnast, you are groomed at a very young age to believe that you're never good enough, that you're not perfect and you need to focus and be hyper-focused on your fault so much so that you really don't take the time to celebrate your achievements. You don't take the time to appreciate how much hard work, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, you or your family endures to get to a competition or to thrive for the Olympics. That is the environment. It's focused on perfectionism, and it's focused on hypersensitivity to every single flaw and imperfection you have.
Kai: Dave, thinking about the metaphors we take from sports, that really hit me, this focus on our flaws and imperfections to the point that we can't even see our successes. I just wonder how much sport has taught us that behavior in our society and how much you think it is or is not changing? That feels like a storyline that came out of these Olympics to me.
Dave: Definitely. First and foremost, in Dominique Dawes' words, I hear the tweet that Simone Biles sent when she stepped away from the all-around competition, where she said, and I'm paraphrasing slightly, she said, "Until this moment, I thought the only reason people even cared about me was my gymnastics announcing that that's not true, because of the support I'm getting." It was a heartbreaking tweet. You're Simone Biles, for goodness sakes. You are arguably in my personal opinion, the greatest athlete ever produced by the United States of America. I'm willing to go on sports radio and argue that out for the caller from Queens. Shout out to Queens.
Kai: Shout out to Queens.
Dave: The issue though is that Simone Biles didn't even realize that, with all of her stature and achievement, that people cared about her other than what she could do. The other issue is, I keep thinking of this book that came out in the early '90s, called Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, a terrific sportswriter. It was about the mistreatment of women gymnasts. This is 30 years ago. This rebellion towards mental health and towards wellness, in what is, I would argue a very abusive sport, towards its charges, a historically abusive sport, with historically abusive coaches standing astride the entire industry, this is just a long time coming.
To get to speak to the heart of your question, Kai, one of the statistics that hopefully people will leave this conversation with is, it's estimated that upwards of 70% of kids quit youth sports by age 13. That is a number that haunts me because one could imagine sports, as it was for me quite frankly, being a kind of lifeline during those difficult high school years, something that gives you a sense of it's not about wins or losses. I wasn't trying to make the pros, but it gave me a network of friends, a network of support, and something fun to do after school.
You want all kids to feel like they can access that if they need to, but there's so much of that, you're either awful, or you're more awful from coaches. It's degrees of awful, there's no such thing as real accomplishment, there's only perfection, which you will never achieve. It actually ends up pushing kids away, and so for a lot of kids, their first act of rebellion as a teenager is to look their parents in the eye and say, "I'm not going to play sports anymore."
Kai: Well, speaking of the caller from Queens, listeners, our phones are open as I talk with sports columnist, Dave Zirin. For old and maybe new fans of the Olympics, did you find yourself more or less invested this year, and why? Call us at 646-435-7280. Was there maybe a specific athlete or event from the games that touched you emotionally in some way positive or negative? We'll take your calls after a break. I'm talking with sports columnist, Dave Zirin. We'll be right back.
Kai: Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. Tonight on the final day of the Olympic Games, we're talking sports with columnist, Dave Zirin. If sports are a metaphor for life, what are they telling us about life right now? Our phones are open. Did you find yourself more or less invested in the Olympics this time around and why? Dave, we asked this question on Twitter earlier today and we got back a lot of responses that sound kind of like you. Somebody said, "It was sad to see the empty seats, billions spent building huge stadiums so these athletes could perform for nobody, mask-wearing seemed random at times, which is unsettling as much as distracting."
Somebody else said, "I still watched but, yes, was less invested this year than usual. I'm not sure why maybe less because of the pandemic and more because I knew the results before watching at night because of the time difference." I was struck by V. Aaron says, "Still working ridiculous overtime at the hospital and missed the entire thing. To your point, Dave, we are still deeply in a pandemic. Let's go straight to a call. Asman in Jackson Heights, Queens. Welcome to the show.
Asman: Hi Kai, Dave, and shout out to Queens.
Kai: Shout out to Queens.
Asman: First-time caller. I just wanted to ask you about the medal disparity between really rich countries in the West versus-- Every time I watch the Olympics, it just seems less of a competition in athletics and more about what country has more money to throw at training and organization. Could you speak to the impact of that on athletic competition globally?
Kai: Thank you for that. Dave?
Dave: Yes, if you think that's bad, wait till the Winter Olympics, the disparities are even more profound. For a lot of countries in the global south, the battle is to make the Olympics, and the battle is to get there and then compete against the best for the purposes of developing your own skill. Unfortunately, what I just described is the Olympic mythos. The reality is much more of what you described, that countries with hubris, while huge populations, of course, but then, of course, tons of money to put, there's corporate sponsorship, et cetera, it's a crushing advantage over countries in the world that are dealing with poverty, or at this point dealing with the COVID pandemic.
I think that the issue of vaccines in the global north and the global south is also a metaphor, just this profound inequality between nations, whether you want to look at medal counts or vaccine counts, it's the same game at this point.
Kai: A year ago, as I said, we were talking about the political speech that was erupting in sports. You have recently said, and we were waxing poetic about maybe this is a different era, and you recently wrote a column that said, "The fantasy of sports being an authentic voice for social justice has crashed onto the rocks of reality." Why? Why has it crashed into these rocks?
Dave: Well, because the reality is that we live in a society, and it's tragic to say this, but that's in a constant state of backlash. The iteration that we've seen around backlash for the last five years has sometimes been called a whitelash, the response by white people in America against people who are speaking out against racism, obviously, you see that in the critical race theories, discussions, et cetera, et cetera. I think what you're seeing right now in sports, is to understand it, you do have to go back a year ago to 2020. I think we oftentimes don't practice these conversations enough like this.
2020 saw, after the police murder of George Floyd, the largest demonstrations in the history of the United States, and of course, that had an impact on the world of sports, and more athletes started to speak out. These athletes were also performing in the context of COVID, so they were keeping the lights on for a lot of these leaks, which led to the league saying, "Okay, we'll support you by putting Black Lives Matter on the uniforms or anti-racism in the end zone, or we won't squawk too much when you make political gestures before games. Colin Kaepernick, who's that? Yes, everybody take a knee. This is awesome." That was the sports management perspective on 2020.
In 2021, I would argue you have seen in sports, and yes, I think this is a reflection of the broader society. You've seen this reassertion of hierarchy in the world of sports. A kind of "Okay, you had your fun, now it's time for us to bring the hammer down and reassert the financial imperatives and the political imperatives." The political hierarchies that sports have always maintained.
I thought that when Naomi Osaka advocated for herself and her mental health, and the response by the French Open, was to say, "Oh, you're not going to do interviews? Well, guess what? Not only will we kick you out of this tournament, but hey, here's a letter from Wimbledon. Here's a letter from Australia. Here's a letter from the US Open, you're pretty much gone unless you do what we say." That was a reassertion of hierarchy. When they could have worked out something very different. By the way, given the fans, only the number two ranked player and easily the most popular player in the world.
Kai: Certainly echoes a lot of what we're seeing in the broader political culture. Let's go to Nicole in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Nicole, welcome to the show.
Nicole: Hi, thank you so much. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a co-founder of the Brooklyn Peaches, which is a synchronized swim group, which started in Brooklyn, and now we're actually across the country. I'm calling for two reasons. One is because the name of our entire sport was changed without input from most people in the actual sport. It was changed by mostly the men who are in power, and I don't know if most people know that there was a wonderful article in The Atlantic about the controversy, it's now officially artistic swimming, but that's not something that most of the actual swimmers support.
Then just to add onto what was just being said about racial inequality, that's something that we, in the synchronization community, feel very strongly about trying to repair. There's a group of us called Open Swim, and we're putting every effort to a grassroots organization to make our sports truly inclusive and welcoming to all people.
Kai: Thank you for that, Nicole. Dave, I hear in that, it's sort of a touch to this broader question of athletes organizing themselves. You're saying that like, "Yes, there was this pushback, there's a reassertion of hierarchy," but has that dampened the activism amongst athletes?
Dave: No. I think that these things that they'll go back and forth. What hasn't changed is that athletes went through that experience in 2020, and it changed them. Athletes have fundamentally changed in terms of how they feel like their power can be expressed, and the idea that they've created this platform and can speak about it. That's why you see what I would argue are hysterical responses by people like Donald Trump, he's actually rooting against the United States, like losing against the US women's soccer team because instead, I guess they want to see that famously unwoke nation of Canada, which by the way, took a knee before the games in protest of racial equality.
Somehow, that's hunky-dory, but it's this idea of, "If you're a political athlete and you represent the United States, we're actually going to root against you." That's part of the reassertion of hierarchy also. The ridiculous backlash against Simone Biles, which you played a clip of at the start of the broadcast, which emanated from the right-wing, is again, something that I think is a reaction to the assertion of player power that we saw in 2020, but the players aren't going anywhere. The athletes aren't going anywhere. You saw a lot of political assertion at these Olympics. I have an article coming out about that on The Nation tomorrow, by the way, like a protest roundup of what we saw in the Games, I'm sorry for the plug-
Kai: No plug.
Dave: -but it's one of those things that I think people need to keep their eye on, because it's not that player activism has died after 2020. It's that these things are going to swing back and forth dramatically, and sometimes brutally. Right now, athletes are trying to lift their ruins and figure out what next. I'm not just speaking abstractly. I was speaking with a major league baseball player just the other week. He was talking about his frustration that his teammates aren't getting vaxxed. Now, he feels like it's a political question for them. He's like, "How can I organize for a players voice, where I can't even organize my team to get vaccinated?" Because they're so enthralled with some of the right-wing who-ha about the vaccinations.
I just said to him, I said, "Look, you got to find the people then who A, are vaxxed and B, who you can work with because you need to build your forces on a small level because I don't know if we're in a time like 2020, where you're going to get the whole team together to do something right now."
Kai: That moment has passed. We're going to have to leave it there. Dave Zirin is the host of The Edge of Sports podcast. He writes a column for The Nation and has written 10 books about the politics of sports.
Kai: Dave, thanks so much for joining us.
Dave: No, thank you, Kai.
Kai: Thanks for all your calls. If we didn't get to you, we'd still love to hear your thoughts, record a voice memo and send it to me at email@example.com. Up next, the hard conversation happening in a lot of our lives. When somebody you love like that baseball player just will not get vaccinated. What do you do? How do you talk about it? Stay with us. That's coming up after a short break. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We'll be right back.
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Kai: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We're going to turn it now to a conversation happening in probably everybody's life. Vaccine mandates are coming, and that's highlighting what seems to me, a uniquely American tension between this deep belief in our right to make individual personal choices, particularly about our bodies, and the things we have to do in order to live together in a society.
That's even harder when we talk about an intentionally plural society with all kinds of folks, claiming all kinds of equal rights. Our Executive Producer, Veralyn Williams recently had an encounter in this regard that hit close to home, and she turned to WNYC's Health Editor, Nsikan Akpan for advice. Here's their conversation.
Veralyn Willians: Hey, Nsikan.
Nsikan Akpan: Hey, Veralyn.
Veralyn Williams: I'm calling you as our all things Delta variant COVID expert at WNYC because I had this conversation with two of my girlfriends whose names I'll be using about why they aren't vaccinated. I really would love for you to give me maybe some insight on how I could have a better version of this conversation in the future. Are you down for that?
Nsikan Akpan: Yes. I'm game. These conversations are always hard. Yes, I have a few tips that people can use.
Veralyn Williams: You should know, this conversation happened really organically. I was scrolling through Instagram, and I came across this post that said that now CUNY, City University of New York schools are going to require all students to be vaccinated in order to attend classes. My friend said, "So it begins." Later while we were cooking breakfast, I pulled out my recorder, which I've been known to do a lot in my life, and I asked her what she meant by that. I could assume, but what did you mean when you said like, "Oh, it starts." What went through your mind at that moment?
Friend: What was going through my mind? I don't know, I just feel like people won't have the right to choose what they want to do regardless of any reason, personal, religious, anything.
Friend: For me, yes, I'm hearing from the doctors. I'm hearing what they're saying about the positives about it. There's still a lot that we don't know, and the part that we don't know is what's causing me to say that I'm going to wait. Now that they're saying, "Okay, now we're making it mandatory," when it's still, at the end of the day, they're still testing it. Even though yes, they have seen that a lot of people are doing well with it. There's still a lot of people that have not.
There's still people that have side effects from the vaccine. Now, they're giving it to – saying it’s required for you to go to school. Instead of letting me say, "Okay, let's continue to wear the mask. Let's continue to be safe. Let's continue to quarantine if you have not received the vaccination," I don't think that's fair.
Veralyn Williams: Is it fair?
Nsikan Akpan: Is it fair to feel that way? I think given the past history, people just don't feel very comfortable with the idea of the government saying that you have to do something for your health. I think in some ways, it's very specific to the times that we're living in right now. Like we live in society that is very much focused on the individual, instead of the collective. I think their sentiments were fair, but I think they're also unfair in that, people making individual decisions saying that they're not going to get these vaccines, even when we know that the vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective. It's not really fair for the people who might catch COVID-19 and really suffer the worst consequences of it.
Veralyn: Yes. One of the reasons why I wanted to check in with you is because one of the things that I heard my friend saying in that moment was that there are a lot of people that have had bad side effects to it. As a consumer of the news, I know that's not true, but I didn't have the facts in front of me.
Nsikan: Yes. It's tough. Even myself, I'm following this every single day I've been doing since the pandemic began and it would be very hard for me to pull the precise stats right off the top of my head. Neuroscientists that I've spoken to for stories about, how do you convince people to take the vaccine if they don't want to say that you don't really need the exact stats to convince somebody, you just need to give them the gist of what's going on.
We know that hundreds of millions of people have taken these vaccines. We know that in terms of serious side effects, they're next to none. If you need a particular stat, there was all that talk about the blood clots with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. These are really rare, atypical. There've been 13 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine given in the United States as of late July and only 39 reports of those rare blood clots have been seen. It's not even just rare. It's almost non-existent.
Veralyn: I heard that the Delta variant, the way that people describe it is like it's like chickenpox. I had chickenpox as a child. I got it probably from a classmate in class. Nothing extraordinary happened, I was just in class. That feels really scarier than even what we've been living with, but it feels like people that refuse to get vaccinated are also not taking the highly contagious Delta Variant as serious. How do you respond to that as a journalist covering this?
Nsikan: Yes. I tried to, I think with any health or science reporting, it's good to consider empathy. I think people are exhausted. This pandemic has just been going on for so long. There have been so many twists and turns. For that reason, I wonder if that slips into some of these feelings to just be like, "Whatever. I'm not going to get the vaccine. I'm just going to take my chances with Delta."
What folks need to know is that Delta is hitting us, like physically hitting people a lot harder than the previous versions of this virus. If you're unvaccinated right now, you might come out of this much worse off than compared to when we were dealing with the original version of the virus.
Veralyn: These are like people that I love. I am trying to hear my friends out, like you say, to be empathetic
Friend 1: Okay, I'll do the [unintelligible 00:33:43].
Veralyn: For me, It's been interesting to hear within our friend group. We all have different takes on some on this because I think it's easy to assume well if someone has a different opinion than you, then it's because they're not educated or because they don't have information or because they--
Friend 1: That's not the case.
Friend 1: -because everyone, as much information that's being shared through the media, through just online search reading about it, you're not just going into this with your one opinion of it, you know what I mean? Or just listening to your family or friends who are just pro or--
Veralyn: What do your family and friends saying besides me?
Friend 1: It's a mix. It's a mix.
Veralyn: You have people in your life who had to get vaccinated for work. One of the things that we know is that usually people's opinion is shaped by people in their life, trusted sources, maybe a pastor. Yes, experiences, of course. I think like with this, it feels like that his brain is being broken down a little bit. I think people have pastors that are saying, "Oh, I got vaccinated, but they're still, I'm not going to get vaccinated." Why do you think the normal trusted way we usually form our opinions through people in our lives has broken down a little bit?
Friend 2: Once because it's a more personal thing. One thing that quarantine has definitely done, for a lot of people is getting you to know yourself. I think I came in a spiritual form. I came like you know, now knowing like, "Hey, I have this new thing that I like that I never knew that I like." You had time to really get to study yourself. This was the situation we were put into. Now, yes, I highly listen to my pastor. I respect what his opinions, as to what he has to say, but at the end of the day, it's still an opinion. I have to live with the fact on whether or not I decide to get a vaccine. You know what I'm saying?
Friend 1: Yes, I do and that's what's best for them. They're your pastor not to say that it's all pastors, but some are older. If you have either prior, health concerns or issues, you can't always make a decision based on what someone else is doing for themselves. You have to do what's right for you.
Friend 2: Let me tell you one thing that my mom has said. She said, It takes faith to get the vaccine and it takes faith not to get the vaccine." At the end of the day, especially in this generation where everybody is like, "Respect this person, respect your opinion, this is what I choose to do," there's some things I don't believe in, but I am respecting you and your opinion.
If this is what I have decided to do for my lifestyle, and I'm being careful, I'm not out there going out, unmasked, and just be like, "Hey, this is what I--" I'm not saying to do that. Be careful? Wear your mask. If I say, "I don't feel comfortable with putting this in my body yet, then respect me. Respect me."
Veralyn: What about--
Friend 1: No, not but… no, that’s a lot of people do a lot… but they’re there. And what about… But there’s a lot --
Veralyn: -- science, but no science. I mean, there’s a lot of buts with a lot of things.
Friend 1: Exactly. That’s the point.
Friend 2: Exactly.
Veralyn: That's the point. [chuckles]
?Speaker 10: [unintelligible 00:37:20].
Veralyn: But I think that science is saying that it's safer-
Friend: Science says a lot of things…a lot of times, and it changes every day. It changes constantly. There's new discoveries. There's new everything, all of the time.
Veralyn: Nsikan as a scientist, [laughs] I'm hearing them say like, "Science isn't always right or there is additions to science," which is, I guess is true. We are learning things all the time. What we know changes as we get more information, more data. What's your reaction to that? If you were there, what would you have said?
Nsikan: There are a few things there that I heard. I think the first part is around information. It's funny. I think there might be too much information, "about these vaccines being put out". When we have information overload, it can be really hard for people to discern what's accurate and what's inaccurate. When that happens, people tend to fall back and this is shown with neuroscience and psychology, people tend to fall back on what they know and what they already believe. They also hear the ramifications of being stuck at home for a year.
I think that there is a reason why certain types of information really took off over the past year. There's a reason why the insurrection happened when it did, for the capital. Part of it was, and I'm not trying to compare your friends to an insurrectionist, I just want to make that clear. I think, we spent a lot of time on our phones, on our computers at home for a whole year and, that allowed us to really reinforce the stuff that we already believe. We've all been listening to the little voices in our heads. We all have them, right?
Nsikan: Like a little more than usual. We've been talking to ourselves more than usual because we didn't have a lot of other people to speak with. Then when all of a sudden we're thrust back to interacting with each other and then you have government officials, you're having friends and family, you're having your pastor, all of a sudden tell you, "Hey, you need to do something. You need to do this right now," they're, in some ways, we're kind of in a shell. I'm sure there's somebody doing some behavioral research right now on the impacts of the pandemic and how it's just changed the mere way that we think and perceive ourself, versus others.
Veralyn: To do it in a society that already we're like such individuals, the show is about living in a plural society, but there's just so much choice and sometimes I wonder how, with a viral disease, how individual choice can be put above the collective.
Nsikan: The problems are so large, it's hard for our minds to even conceive what they mean. New York City is coming up on one million infections of COVID like how many deaths? We can't even conceive of that happening in a single year and I think when you can't picture what's going on, it's hard to act on it. For past outbreaks, mandating vaccines, having large public government-run vaccination drives, I'm thinking for smallpox, like for influenza, that was very much the norm.
People back then, were more comfortable with that idea, but we now live in this time where there's a lot more distrust of the government and so when the government says, "Hey, you need to do something, that this thing has to be mandated." Yes, you're going to get these feelings that come out.
Veralyn: I ended my conversation with them by just really asking, what would it take for them to take in a lot of what we're talking about and get vaccinated?
Friend 2: I don't know, it would have to be a whole new mindset. I'm going to keep on praying about it. If I feel like this is the time to do like how I make all my decisions in life, [chuckles] then I will get the vaccine, but at this moment of time, if I feel any hesitancy about a decision, I'm not doing it and honestly, that has always been the way I've lived my life. You all could be going on this roller coaster and be like, "Oh, this is the best thing ever. "I'm hesitant about this. I'm going to go back because I don't feel comfortable. When I am comfortable, I will get on the roller coaster with you all.
Friend 1: Yes, it's a comfort thing as well.
Veralyn: I feel like but I think there's going to be so many situations where you're going to be around people like everyone is vaccinated and you're not, are you going to disclose it? I guess it's--
Friend 1: Yes. I will.
Friend 2: You know what's whack? It's like, "Why can I just, first of all, why do I have to?" Second of all, "Okay, no, I should, because maybe you don't feel safe with that," so I'll let you know that I'm not vaccinated but then the shame that people will try to put on you, I don't think that's right, everybody goes, around and be like, "Oh, this is who I am." "Okay, be you, I mean shoot. Don't be trying to shame me."
Veralyn: Do you feel ashamed?
?Speaker 10: Nope.
Veralyn: You're also not… I mean you’re around your family most of the time.
Friend 2: I am, but I also know this, if I go somewhere-- Come on Vera, when I told you that I wasn't going to be vaccinated, there wasn't a lot bit of you that was like, "Mmh".
Veralyn: I think it's different because you know that I love you no matter what. So that’s what I think..
Friend 1: What’s your take on herd immunity?
Veralyn: I don't have to have a take on it. There's a fact that a lot of people get either haven't been exposed to it or if you get it, a lot of people getting vaccinated, then that, in general, is going to protect the larger society because obviously, COVID is adapting and it is mutating. If we're more people that aren't susceptible to the worst effects of it, that is making it safer for everyone. So… herd immunity is an opinion.
Friend 2: Most people feel safe getting the vaccine and I'm the minority that doesn't feel safe getting the vaccine. The herd immunity works, then why the shouldn't I be okay?
Veralyn: What if a lot of people feel the way you feel then when--
Friend 2: There are a lot of people who feel how I feel?
Veralyn: -there are a lot, yes, there are a lot of people.
Friend 2: Do you understand where we're coming from? I understand where you're coming from, but do you understand where we're coming from, to the fact where you're not looking down?
Veralyn: Well, I'm not looking down, but I will say that I don't fully understand.
Veralyn: I don't know. Even listening to it now, I feel both very protective if I'm being honest, I feel very protective of my friends because if I was someone listening to this, I'd be like, "These women are selfish." I will be like, "Yes, you should feel shame," but I also like I said, love them and so I don't know. Are you like, "They should be feeling a lot of shame right now?" Like you're like, "Yes, feel shame?"
Nsikan: No, actually, it's interesting both of your friends brought up the word comfort. Like, "I'm going to do this when I feel comfortable." The social psychologists that I've spoken to on this issue say that probably the biggest driver of acceptance of the vaccines or uptake the vaccines is social norms. Essentially, we're probably going to reach a point where so many people have gotten it in and so many different communities and so many different friend groups that people who are holdouts are going to just go get it.
I think common sense and reason is going to wean out. I think that the really dangerous place we're in right now is does it take two months for it to wean out or does it take a year or does it take two years? Then you keep having this virus spread, you keep forming new variants, and maybe eventually, we do end up with a variant that can bypass our vaccines. I know, there's been a lot of news lately about vaccinated people can get infected, and-
Veralyn: Breakthrough infections.
Nsikan: -that was breakthrough infections, that was always the case and literally, nothing that we've learned about Delta so far has changed what we thought about breakthrough infections in that they are extremely, extremely rare.
Veralyn: I guess my thing is if someone is not vaccinated, and they are, let's say, at brunch or at a graduation party, just to say the few places that I've been and came upon someone in my circle that isn't vaccinated and it's always a shock because I'm a tongue in cheek kind of person. I might say something like, "Wow, we've all taken off my mask hopefully everyone's vaccinated," and everyone's like, "I'm vaccinated" "I'm vaccinated," then one person might reveal and disclose that they're not vaccinated. What do we do in those moments? Should we all just whip back on masks immediately? Should we all exile that person to the corner? You know what I mean?
Nsikan: I think you don't have to ostracize unvaccinated people. If you're hanging out with an unvaccinated person, preferably, you should do it outside because given what we know about asymptomatic infections of the coronavirus, that person could have the virus and not know it vice versa, right? If we're saying vaccinated, people can in rare instances, catch the virus and potentially spread it, a vaccinated person might have that virus and be able to spread it to them and then that's less likely to happen if everyone's hanging outdoors versus indoors. Hanging out indoors with unvaccinated people right now without a mask is asking for trouble.
Yes, when I go into indoor places right now, and I don't know the status of other folks, I'm just wearing a mask because it takes two seconds for me to put on a mask and I know that I feel confident based off-of all the studies that have been done on masks that it will protect me against catching that virus as long as I'm wearing it, I'm socially distance, I'm following all the rules that we've all learned over the past year, just because these vaccines came out, it doesn't mean that those rules don't apply anymore or those rules can't help you. That's where I stand with it.
Veralyn: Thank you so much Nsikan for talking this out with me.
Nsikan: Yes, of course, anytime.
Kai: This is the United States of Anxiety. You can catch up on previous shows by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts or you can go to wnyc.org/anxiety, look for the collections tab there to find curated lists of some of our back episodes, including one on what we have learned from COVID. You can always reach me at email@example.com. I do love to get voice memos there, so hit me up or hit me up on Twitter @Kai _Wright. @Kai_Wright. Thanks for spending this time with us and I will talk to you next week.
Kai: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Mixing and music by Jared Paul, Kevin Bristow, and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, Kousha Navidar, Gigi Polizzi and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer, and as always, I hope you join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM, Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, take care of yourselves. Thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.