Compassion fatigue: an inevitable consequence of the anti-vaccine movement

In California, the percentage of vaccinated patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is “effectively zero”. Recently, a physician in a COVID unit published an op-ed in the LA Times about compassion fatigue; namely, that they are beginning to develop it for their patients–who are, again, entirely unvaccinated. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such an opinion from a healthcare worker. I don’t know if people realize how privileged–the less kind word would be “spoiled”–it is to either neglect to get or outright refuse a vaccine that will keep them out of the hospital when they get COVID, a vaccine that is completely free and physically accessible to people in urban areas.

As someone who is both Filipino-American and studying the sociology of the COVID-19 pandemic in an academic setting, I’m in a really unique position. I have heard both from people who live in the Philippines with less vaccine access, who wanted but couldn’t get it when I could, and also from American healthcare workers who can attest that, yes, this rapidly became a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Aside from the immunocompromised and minor children, either ineligible for the vaccine or burdened with anti-vax parents, this means that nearly everyone now who dies of COVID-19 perishes out of self-neglect or ignorance. From my vantage point, I have maintained compassion, largely because it is extremely upsetting and disturbing to me to watch so many people become sickened by their own self-neglect or ignorance–and also because, as a sociologist, I understand that people are influenced by greater forces to forego vaccination

It’s therefore easy and necessary for me to maintain compassion. I was once told by an essential non-healthcare worker that I just “sit around and pontificate” about this pandemic. At the time, this was very offensive to me, but he was correct. All I do is study it. I have had the luxury of mostly working from home this entire time. Indeed, none of us can or should blame frontline healthcare workers for compassion fatigue. They are being kept overworked caring for people who cared so little about themselves or those around them that they’ve landed themselves in a completely preventable and life-threatening situation.

If anyone has ever been in a relationship with someone who refuses to care for themselves, you’ll know how exhausting that is. Imagine doing it for 16 hours a day, with 20-40 patients, each of whom are very poorly because they failed to simply get a vaccine. Would you be as compassionate? After a while, probably not.

There’s also a secondary conversation here about our healthcare infrastructure. For as much as we spend on healthcare in the US, our hospitals generally are not designed to handle large-scale catastrophes like pandemics. What they’re built for is maximizing profit while minimizing actual value. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, and the manager sends a bunch of people home to keep labor costs down, but then a big dinner rush comes in and suddenly everyone’s having a hard time keeping up, that’s really similar to what’s happening in healthcare.

The problem is healthcare isn’t meant, when it comes to quality of care offered, to be about profit or ROI. It’s meant to be about care. It says so right in its name. Those who orchestrate healthcare–companies providing it, legislators controlling its access–do not actually provide healthcare, and do not demonstrate compassion for those who do. We run healthcare like a business instead of a public service, and so we should not be surprised if, eventually, these people who are supposed to be like public servants anyway run out of compassion fatigue.

All of this points to massive and glaring problems with how Americans do healthcare. From day 1 of this pandemic, which somehow began a year-and-a-half ago, American heads of state took incredibly individualistic perspectives on COVID prevention, while international leaders highlighted the duty we each have to public health. We have framed every means of prevention as a personal choice rather than a public responsibility. And we have, throughout all this, treated our frontline healthcare workers like saving lives is akin to customer service.

If you’re a frontline healthcare worker reading this, thank you, I applaud you, and I wish there was some way each of us could personally make this up to you.

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