Submitted by Lee Habeeb

Dear Mayor Tannehill:

Last week, I found myself—a perfectly healthy 60-year-old—in a local hospital suffering from the effects of the COVID-19 Delta variant. A doctor buddy pushed me to get to an emergency CAT scan of my lungs, and within hours, blood thinners were applied intravenously for clots in my lungs, and antibiotics for the pneumonia too. Thanks to some great local health care providers, I’m home and on the mend.

While I was recovering, a friend sent me a link to your appearance on a national news show to talk about the spreading virus in our mutual home of Oxford, Mississippi. Several times, you told the anchor you were frustrated with your constituents over local COVID vaccination rates. Then came the exchange that revealed an ugly side.

ANCHOR: “I’m sure you’re getting pushback, and people are saying to you, ‘It’s my choice, don’t tell me what to do.'”

ROBYN TANNEHILL: Certainly we do. And it is your choice, and we hope people will make the choice not to be selfish and help our community move forward. We are at a time when people are taking up hospital beds who chose to be unvaccinated.”

What you said wasn’t just repellent; it was personal. In my family of four—one with access to great doctors—we came to different vaccination conclusions based on personal circumstances. My wife’s mom, who lives with us, is in her 70s and had risk factors that made it a fast “yes” for the vaccine. I am 60, which was reason enough to proceed. I got the first shot but had a very bad reaction. After consultation with my doctor, I chose not to pursue the second shot. My wife, the picture of health and in her 40s, has suffered from bad reactions to medication throughout her life. She thus chose not to vaccinate, as did my 16-year-old daughter. Both got COVID. Neither was hospitalized.

The three of us are not selfish, Ms. Mayor. We’re good people who made rational medical assessments according to our individual needs and risk profiles. And shaming people into changing their behavior for the greater good isn’t the best way to motivate your constituents. Condescension isn’t particularly effective either. Indeed, your attitude—and the attitude of so many public policy types and experts—only pushes those not inclined to take the vaccines to harden their position.

Moreover, it starts to feel less like science and more like religious dogma when shame is used to garner the results you desire. You sounded more like an angry cleric in that interview than a humble public servant trying her best to understand her constituents. The fact is, taking a vaccine—or any medical treatment—is personal and should be driven by the individual patient’s needs and the doctor’s advice.

As I thought more about your TV appearance, I began to wonder what you might have told a national anchor had you been the mayor of, let’s say, New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis. Would you have decried the selfish behavior of AIDS patients flooding the hospitals devouring precious public resources because of their unsafe choices sexually or with needles? There were some public leaders who did. It was a disgrace.

When addicts rolled into our local hospital from overdoses two years ago—and hospitals across America during the fentanyl epidemic—did shaming them make any sense?

And in a state with the highest obesity rate in the nation, would you ever dream of calling those who suffer from the co-morbidities of obesity—Type 2 diabetes being a big one—”selfish”? Or fat-shaming them? I hope not. Obesity is crippling our state and local budgets: 308,000 people in Mississippi—13.6 percent of the adult population—have been diagnosed with diabetes; 75,000 more don’t know they have it. An additional 814,000—35 percent of the adult population—have prediabetes. And the costs are staggering: $2.4 billion in 2017 alone, with another $990 million in indirect costs. Those resources could have been used to educate kids—or heck—provide tax relief to the hardworking people of our state.

Moreover, obesity is a key driver in COVID death rates. According to a recent Forbes story on a study that included Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization, 2.2 million of the pandemic’s 2.5 million global deaths were in countries with high levels of obesity.

“The report found death rates were 10x higher in countries where more than 50% of the population is overweight,” according to Forbes. Near the top of that obesity list were England and America, which both suffered from high COVID mortality rates. Vietnam, on the other hand, has the lowest COVID-19 death rate in the world. It also happens to have the second-lowest rate of obesity.

The report noted that there’s “not a single example internationally” of a country with low levels of obesity and high death rates.

Ms. Mayor, please stop the judging and start listening. Understand that many Americans have a healthy distrust of government. It’s baked not just into our DNA but into our Constitution, with checks and balances to protect us from centralized government power. And ourselves.

Understand that many Americans are skeptical about vaccines that were pushed through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at warp speed (it generally takes a decade and billions to get a life-saving cancer drug through the process)—and that they haven’t been tested longitudinally. And with politicians driving that push, be it Donald Trump or Joe Biden, not just for the greater good but their own political survival. And legacy.

Moreover, it didn’t help matters that the nation’s giant pharmaceutical companies were not merely backers of the vaccine but big beneficiaries. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s acceptance of millions of dollars through its nonprofit foundation from companies like Pfizer, Biogen and Merck—$79.6 million from 2014-2018 alone—adds to the skepticism. And that’s not counting the $220 million Big Pharma spends annually lobbying Congress, the highest total of any industry in America.

Indeed, a 2020 Axios poll confirmed the level of skepticism Americans have about Big Pharma’s influence on our nation’s governing bodies: “Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have a great deal of trust in the Food and Drug Administration or pharmaceutical companies to look out for their interests.”

And it didn’t help matters that the FDA announced the resignations of two top vaccine officials last week, with a report from Politico saying they left in anger over the Biden administration’s plan to roll out COVID-19 booster shots before officials had a chance to approve it. That news hurt not just the credibility of the booster shot but the vaccines themselves.

The fact is, the vaccines have saved countless lives, especially the lives of those most vulnerable to dying from the virus: the elderly. Indeed, our senior population, which has been responsible for over 80 percent of all COIVD deaths, recently crossed the 90 percent vaccination rate in this country. That’s an astoundingly positive outcome worthy of celebration. And a rational one, because it was the elderly who were always most at risk of mortality. And that’s what most Americans were worried about: dying from COVID, not getting it.

Ms. Mayor, if you continue your approach and start to join the growing chorus pushing for the vaccination of young people under 18, you will encounter more resistance, with data and risk analysis driving it, not stupidity.

“Over the course of the pandemic, 49,000 Americans under the age of 18 have died of all causes,” David Wallace-Wells wrote in a recent piece in, of all places, New York magazine. “Only 331 of those deaths have been from COVID.” In 2019, more than 2,000 American kids and teenagers died in car crashes.

Wallace-Wells added that over 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID, but just 0.05 percent were under the age of 18, a population that represents more than 20 percent of the country’s total population.

With all due respect, you are our mayor, not our doctor. You were elected to serve us, not judge us. Know that Oxonians and fellow Americans who don’t comply with your wishes aren’t Luddites or anti-vaxxers, Ms. Mayor. Life is more complicated than that, as is this disease. Millions of Americans, weighing what they know against what they don’t about the long-term impact of not one or two but multiple vaccine doses versus the probability of their children dying or getting dangerously sick from COVID, may choose to resist your future pleas to “move the community forward.”

Because, in the end, it was death and other extreme outcomes from COVID so many Americans were trying to avert, not living life without it.

All the best,

Lee Habeeb

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This op-ed first appeared in Newsweek on September 7, 2021. The author granted Y’all Politics permission to run it as well.