A tale of two sicknesses, and the making of public policy
Two stories recently in the news:
No. 1: Rolling Stone magazine reported in May on a diatribe by guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton describing his harrowing personal experience with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Clapton tells of 10 days of "severe reactions" to his first shot, then two weeks following his second when "my hands and feet were either frozen, numb or burning, and pretty much useless."
"I continue to tread the path of passive rebellion and try to tow the line [sic] in order to be able to actively love my family," Clapton wrote to Rolling Stone, "but it's hard to bite my tongue with what I now know."
Just what exactly, I wonder, does he now know? I think it is different from what Terry Greear knows.
No. 2: Terry Greear is a 42-year-old elementary school coach in Florida whose story is the subject of a CNN report this week. Greear wanted to get vaccinated last January but, young and healthy, he had to wait behind older and more-vulnerable people. In the meantime, he came down with COVID-19. For 72 days, he battled the disease, kept alive with a feeding tube, ventilator and lung bypass machine. He eventually survived, but still harbors lingering effects of the disease.
I suspect it is hard for him to bite his tongue at family gatherings, too, considering what he now knows. But just what is that, really?
"Get vaccinated," he told CNN. "I don't want anybody else's family to have to go through what my family went through."
Stories like Clapton's and Greear's are valuable. They certainly add to our anecdotal understanding of COVID-19 infection and vaccination. But extrapolating their individual experience into public policy is very dangerous business that respectable health professionals, thankfully, eschew and newspaper and media consumers ought to avoid as well.
Yes, some otherwise healthy 42-year-olds get COVID-19 and become dangerously ill or die. Yes, some people who get vaccinated have bad reactions. Some of them might even be iconic rock stars. But their individual stories are not necessarily representative of the population at large. The science seems pretty clear that, generally, 42-year-olds who contract COVID-19 will not spend months on a ventilator in the intensive care ward. It is equally clear that, while some people who receive one of the approved vaccines may experience some temporary discomfort, the vast majority will very likely not get COVID-19 and if they do get it, their case will be mild.
We must always be wary of attributing authority to celebrities. One's facile fingers on the frets of an electric guitar do not necessarily translate to expertise in virology or science (unless, perhaps, he is Brian May, the celebrated Queen guitarist and accomplished astrophysicist who classed his hero Clapton among those he called "fruitcakes" for rejecting the science on vaccines). Speaking personally, Van Morrison is one of my Top 5 rock heroes. But his eloquence on fighting coronavirus comes down to a vague nostalgia for lost rebellion (performed with Clapton) on his new jumped-the-shark album "Latest Record Project, Vol. 1" and a virtually incoherent rant he released in December with Clapton called "Stand and Deliver," featuring such literary magic as "Magna Carta, Bill of Rights / The constitution, what's it worth? / You know they're gonna grind us down, ah / Until it really hurts."
I have an answer for him, by the way, on the whereabouts of those lost rebels. Some of them learned that it's one thing to resist being told how white their shirts can be (no, I don't know or care what Mick Jagger thinks about the virus) and another to celebrate people who ignore authoritative research when making decisions about their health and that of others.
But, forgive me, I digress. My point is simply this: Read stories about people's experiences with the vaccine and about their experiences with COVID-19.
Indeed, read stories about individual experiences with any subject of human interest. They can help you understand an issue. But read all the stories, or at least a wide variety of them. And, more importantly, read also interviews with true experts and the work of unknown researchers who tirelessly strive to determine reliable information about a subject.
Love our artists. Sympathize with our families, friends and neighbors. But reach beyond them when considering matters of public policy.