Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Humility: What the world needs now

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a House Select Subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis on the Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2021. Amr Alfiky/The New York Times via AP, Pool

Published: 8/3/2021 1:00:08 PM

I have written about the necessity of humility and open-minded curiosity for white people to more deeply understand white supremacy and privilege and for heterosexuals to engage in empathy for LGBTQ people. In recent weeks, it has occurred to me that humility is more universally essential than I had considered.

From a public health perspective, it may mean the difference between life and death. Michael Osterholm runs an infectious disease research center at the University of Minnesota, and he has conveyed that the most prevailing principle we need to pay attention to is humility in regards to COVID-19. Thinking we can power our way through it is arrogance and leads to destruction and death.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly proclaimed that vaccinated people could remove masks in most situations in May, I sent an email to everyone I knew writing that this was premature and ill-advised. The CDC continues to convey they are following the science rather than owning they made a mistake. No humility or mea culpa. Their crystal ball science did not account for sociopolitical factors and they did not know whether or not vaccinated people could transmit the virus.

Jessica Rivera, a highly regarded infectious disease epidemiologist, conveyed that the precise time variant strains are likely to succeed is when we stop wearing masks at a time when transmission is lower but vaccination rates are not high. She told National Public Radio on July 22 that she screamed in mid-May when the CDC said that vaccinated people can stop wearing masks. The same day at a White House briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was still saying mask wearing is “a very individual choice” despite alarming rising rates of serious illness and death from the delta variant. Public health leaders are supposed to be more concerned with saving lives than spineless notions of freedom.

The CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health persist in giving confusing advice to Americans, and such ambiguity sets up convenient interpretations for many people who are insistently anti-mask and anti-vaccination. The virus is in charge, and if we are to survive it, we need to surrender to the reality of it. Having masks on some children and not others in school is a live version of the Star-Bellied Sneetches. It sets up judgment and division rather than unity. Wear masks, everyone. Simple.

We will not get this under control until we pull together. There are seriously ill unvaccinated people who are bravely owning their ignorance or refusal, and some of them have given video testimony to convince others to get their shots. Humility and regret may serve to get more people vaccinated and it may lead to safer practices, too.

A recent Gazette guest columnist, Gary Pinkerton, wrote with arrogance about my friend and colleague, John Paradis’ column on his travels to the Midwest. John wrote about feeling uneasy that he was driving through states where it is normative to be unvaccinated, unmasked, support Trump, and advertise Christianity. Bearing in mind that Trump is unashamed in his racism, misogyny, and narcissism to the point of allowing hundreds of thousands of people to die on his watch rather than to unify Americans in a public health crisis, John expressed feeling sadness about the parallel universes in the United States today.

My own experience living in the Midwest and visiting family there in my adult years led me to write to John and convey that his column spoke to me. I know firsthand that too often beneath the veneer of Midwestern friendliness homophobia, racism and sexism lurk. There are good people everywhere and there are harmful people everywhere. Norms, however, vary. The guest columnist in his defensive posture seemed pleased with himself as he insulted Paradis in ignorance and a lack of curiosity about who John is as a columnist, veteran and caring person.

Mr. Pinkerton, John is a respected retired Air Force officer and veteran advocate leader in western Massachusetts. He frequently writes about veteran issues; thus, his identifier at the end of each monthly column. He is a humble man who cares about this country and the world at large. You seem unhinged in your response to Paradis. In place of humility and a recognition that our country is in trouble are sarcasm and a character assault. And by the way, John’s very capable and accomplished daughter was not “sent” anywhere. Your harassment merely confirms John’s concerns about how unkind and hostile people are in our divided country.

I circle back to humility. The world desperately needs more of it. If it had been at play, Northampton’s leaders would have honored the lives and rights of the Warfield Place cherry trees. The pandemic would be subsiding. Empathy would be considered a super power. It’s possible.

J.M. Sorrell is a social justice activist/trainer and a health care advocate.

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