Opinion

Nobody should go bankrupt for COVID-19 treatment. Even anti-vaxxers.

Resist the temptation of schadenfreude

To understand the concept of schadenfreude, all you needed to do on Friday was read the replies to a tweet by NBC reporter Sahil Kapur. "Most private insurers are no longer waiving cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment," Kapur had written, sharing a new report about how now "people seeking hospital care (who overwhelmingly are unvaccinated) will be required to pay." 

"Hope you saved your pennies, anti-vaxxers," read one response. "No more subsidizing the non-vaccinated," trumpeted another. "Well, y'all were asking," quipped one more.

I get the frustration, I really do. But punishing the unvaccinated by saddling them with potentially crippling medical debt is not right, no matter how you feel about their decision.

There is no question that anti-vaxxers make the world more dangerous for everyone. The more cases of COVID-19 that circulate in a population, the more opportunity there is for the virus to mutate into vaccine-resistant strains. Hospitals in America's hotspots are filled with unvaccinated patients who have a preventable illness, making it so people who aren't voluntarily ill or hurt can't get treatment. And it will probably be years before we grasp the toll that the current COVID-19 surge is having on medical professionals' mental health.

But in spite of all that, it's ghoulish to celebrate the news that people will inevitably go bankrupt for their treatment for COVID-19. Everyone deserves health care regardless of the decisions they've made in their life; it's why we admit people to hospitals when they're sick or hurt, rather than allow them to die in the streets. The fact that America has a health care system where insurers are allowed to arbitrarily waive or impose costs is a symptom of a deeply broken program, and one that leaves open the door to denying patients affordable coverage for reasons as elective as drinking socially, as trivial as having acne, or as predetermined as being born with a female body.

We need to take a bigger-picture view, also, of whose "fault" it is when an anti-vaxxer gets sick. Should punishment really be prescribed to one individual when it was our government's failure to take the pandemic seriously in its early stages that led to COVID's uniquely unchecked proliferation in our nation? Can an anti-vaxxer's worldview be separated from President Trump's lies to the American people about the severity of the disease, or the reckless partisan politicizing of the vaccine? Doesn't the Biden administration also hold some responsibility for not effectively reaching vaccine skeptics? And while it is extremely unlikely that a fully-vaccinated person will be hospitalized with COVID-19, it is not unheard of (indeed, statistically it makes sense that the more people who are vaccinated, the more it will be vaccinated people in hospitals) — so are we okay with those people getting slammed with medical debt by a policy intended to "punish" the anti-vaxxers?

It's hard to feel sorry for the thousands of unvaccinated people who are falling sick when the vaccine is free, and proof of its safety and effectiveness is readily available. But gleefully applauding one of America's most disgraceful systems isn't the move. If the pandemic ought to have taught us anything, it's that there is a more humane way to treat the sick in this country — no matter who those sick are.

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