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schadenfeude but for vaccines

'Vaxenfreude' and the shame around unvaccinated COVID-19 victims

Mike Kuhn, a funeral director in Reading, Pennsylvania, says his three funeral homes have laid to rest hundreds of people who died of COVID-19, but many of the grieving families wanted all mention of COVID left off the death notices. 

"I've heard people where they're just like, I don't know why, but I just don't want to have COVID listed on the death certificate, and I don't want to hear that COVID had anything to do with my father's death," Kuhn told Brett Sholtis at WITF in Harrisburg on Tuesday's All Things Considered. Some of the people, he added, said they "don't really want to give a lot of credence to COVID." 

In some cases, Sholtis reports, "this creates a situation that psychologists call a disenfranchising death," where "mourners feel they don't have the right to fully grieve because of controversy over the cause of death." Ken Doka, the Hospice Foundation of America executive who pioneered the idea, said he saw this a lot during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, where a person's death is tainted by a supposed moral failure that mourners fear will lead to judgement from others. 

"So, for instance, if I say, my brother — which he didn't — but if I say to you, my brother died of lung cancer, what's the first question you're going to ask?" Doka told All Things Considered. "Was he a smoker? And somehow, if he's a smoker, he's responsible." With COVID-19, people might ask grieving relatives if the person who died was overweight or had pre-existing conditions. Or, they might ask if the person was vaccinated. 

Politico's Tyler Weyant argued Tuesday night that people should resist any sort of "vaxenfreude," which he defines as "the joy the vaccinated feel when the unvaccinated get COVID-19."

"For millions of Americans who've been vaccinated for months, it is a tough sell to have no negative reactions toward those whom they blame for driving the latest spike in COVID," Weyant writes. But vaxenfreude "exposes a hideous lack of empathy and compassion among vaccinated people who, a year ago, emphasized the importance of getting a shot to protect everyone, not just yourself."

Losing a loved one to COVID-19 "is heartbreaking" and "being unvaccinated doesn't make it less heartbreaking." Weyant says. "We shouldn't roll our eyes at this truth: Everyone who gets sick is someone's family member or friend."