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Normalcy, that’s it, right? The thing we all wanted, maybe even longed for in 2020. That’s why I was so excited to have a real, adult-ish, old-school, dinner at a restaurant with a group of friends recently. It was my first since the lockdown began a year ago, and it felt, well, like a return to normalcy. Ya know, as long as the dinner ended at 90 minutes, six people max per table and instead of checking our IDs at the door, we had a gun-like machine pointed at our foreheads assuring we were fever-free. Ahh normal … ish
Pre-2020, the normal cringeworthy questions consisted of who is still single, or in my case, who is single yet again. Now, the conversation starts with everyone asking the only question that really matters, if they got Pfizer or Moderna, and ends with a few people silently slinking into their seats and paying a little too much attention to the dinner menu that they had to download off the table (because apparently handling paper menus is now the modern-day version of having unprotected sex).
While we all started talking about how free we felt and who had what side effects, one girlfriend wouldn’t look up from her phone. That’s the moment it hit me — is she an anti-vaxxer?!?
Now, I’m a big “judge not” person. Wait, I take that back, I’m wildly judgmental, but that was on the list of my pandemic resolutions — the things I wanted to change about myself after a year of reflecting. But this topic, the public discourse surrounding vaccinations, is one that remains very personal.
I’m the first to agree that it’s hard to know what to believe when at one point I was being told by CNN to wipe down my Petco catalog with bleach and a blowtorch. But here’s the real reason I feel compelled not to judge my friend: I’m a convert to this side of the argument. I admit it, I didn’t always get a flu shot. And when the HPV vaccine became readily available to people my age, I politely declined. I’m also a textbook hypochondriac who seems to react to everything. I’m 98 pounds soaking wet, needing to gain 10, and Web MD is my screen saver.
Even with that context, when the COVID-19 vaccine was announced, I was overjoyed, as I assumed everyone I knew would be. We’ve been in a pandemic — it’s a word we say these days with a casual nonchalance of saying something like it’s cold and flu season — but it has a devastating meaning. Millions of people died. Our entire world suffers immensely — economically, socially, politically — so the thought that we could end it with a vaccine — like I said, sign me up!
I was so fortunate to be one of the first groups to get vaccinated because I am considered an essential worker; running a support program for people infected with COVID who have pets and need help. Sadly, I’ve had to rehome over 30 animals this year whose owners died of COVID without a backup plan.
What I didn’t anticipate was that the ones who also needed my help were the pet owners I met who suffered from the virus and lived. Some have such debilitating long-term side effects that I am still bringing them their groceries each week and still giving them my tiny but very helpful shoulder to cry on.
But when I started talking to my Hollywood peers about the vaccine, I was shocked at how many of them were skeptical.
Look, there is a place for reasonable skepticism. It’s a new vaccine, a new technology and there is no long-term data. Those are real, non-Qanon, concerns, that I understand. But so far the studies have shown the mRNA vaccines to be stunningly safe — safer and more effective than any vaccine in history — and also, the simple fact that we do know the awful, lasting, long-term bad effects, of something like, oh, you know … COVID.
These are my same Hollywood peers, and by that I mean the same women and yes, men, who are repeatedly injecting new non-FDA approved fillers into their faces. Plus Botox monthly and diets that consist of Adderall and sugar-free Red Bull with a pack of gum for dessert.
The tangled logic of believing in those things, but not the science of the vaccine — that’s the thing I can’t quite wrap my head around. And given the impact it has on vulnerable communities, it’s also something I’m not sure I can quite forgive.
After trying to convince my skeptical friends to get vaccinated, I realized this was just a gateway phenomena — a secret password — that took me backstage to the real problem. The pushback that I’d been feeling since being vaccinated, which I thought was generic skepticism, turned out to be something much more sinister. Suddenly, those initial objections based on some sort of facts gave way to these furtive glances around the room, followed by a conspiratorial whisper — “Bill Gates and the government were working together to put microchips in us through the vaccine and that it contained a chemical that would make us all unable to procreate.”
What in the actual F is going on? They — my peers — actually believe this.
Mandy, a well-known model turned environmentalist, actually believes we are all being microchipped. Well hey, fewer “missing people” reports amirite??
Then we have my friend Samantha, who graduated from Harvard, and is now an award-winning actress. Sam told me about 10 times over coffee that “there has to be a motive” because it was developed too fast. To which I replied that there is most definitely a motive: to save lives.
Next up on the vaccine skip line is my former agent Cathy who now works at a huge firm. She says it’s her personal choice not to get it because she is scared. Now again, I understand this because I, too, was scared. And I appreciated the honesty. But Cathy has a husband, two teenage children and her 83-year-old mother living with her. Cathy, this is your chance to overcome your fear for those you love. We all are scared.
Last up we have Frank, my accountant. Yes, the man who is telling me to save for retirement actually believes the vaccine will alter his DNA. I had no comment on that one ’cause he charges by the minute.
When I first heard that 1 in 4 Americans were absolutely not going to get vaccinated (which, by the way, will prevent us from getting to herd immunity), I couldn’t figure out where these ideas came from. (In recent weeks the number of Americans who say they won’t get vaccinated has come down closer to 1 in 5). And now I know. They came from Frank, my f-ing accountant.
The truth is, when I look back at 2020, as tough as it was, there’s a ton of gratitude I feel. For my health. The health of my friends and family. The people I met as I tried to help those affected by the pandemic. The animals that we rescued.
And even amid this gratitude, I’m still swamped by the memories of there not being enough room in the morgue for my friend Greg’s body, the animals we couldn’t save … There was simply so much suffering. So how do we return to normalcy? We do it with a sense of community obligation we didn’t have before.
Shira Scott Astrof is an actress, writer, philanthropist and founder/CEO of the The Animal Rescue Mission, an L.A.-based nonprofit animal rescue.
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