Social media was a hive of discussion, disagreement, and vitriol well before COVID-19, but the belligerence from all sides of the vaccine debate has spilled onto an unexpected platform.
In obituaries around the country, instead of “rest in peace,” it’s becoming a war of words.
With COVID-19-related deaths topping 670,000 nationwide and no reassuring data that we’re out of the worst of the pandemic yet, we likely haven’t seen the last of these strongly worded obituaries.
Part death announcement, part highlights of a life now ended, obits now often carry new messages and meaning beyond their traditional use. And as they gain attention on social media, the responses are often morbid, mean and, for many, sad.
When someone dies from COVID-19, their death may be seen as stigmatizing, given the strong sentiments — often political in nature — surrounding the pandemic. Some families have chosen to omit the specific cause of death or shroud COVID-19 behind terms like “died from pneumonia,” or “respiratory disease,” “multi-organ failure,” “a viral illness,” etc.
For others, these death announcements offer an opportunity to air their frustration or grievances with the potentially vaccine-preventable death of a loved one. Often these are worded more directly, placing blame squarely on the unvaccinated.
This was the case in a death notice in a local paper in Illinois, The State Journal-Register:
“Candace Cay (Kruger) Ayers, 66, of Springfield, passed away on September 3, 2021, at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, IL. She was preceded in death by more than 4,531,799 others infected with COVID-19. She was vaccinated but was infected by others who chose not to be. The cost was her life.”
Her family reportedly received negative and positive reactions to the obituary, including people who said they would get immunized as a result.
“Please Get Vaccinated”
Other COVID-19 death notices do not point blame per se. Instead, they encourage people who remain unvaccinated to get vaccinated — a cautionary tale often told in several paragraphs.
For example, the obituary for antiques dealer Ray Martin DeMonia, 73, of Cullman, AL, stated in part:
“In honor of Ray, please get vaccinated if you have not, in an effort to free up resources for non COVID related emergencies.”
DeMonia was vaccinated and died from heart problems. His story received a lot of media attention when he was unable to get a critical care bed at 43 intensive care units filled with COVID-19 patients.
In another instance, Kelly Saks shares her family’s plea for people to get vaccinated after her father, Frank Saks, died from COVID-19 in July at age 71. In a video interview with MSNBC posted on YouTube, Kelly Saks explains that her father was not anti-vaccine but hesitated because it required taking time away from his small business and because he had heard misinformation about the dangers of the vaccine. Her goal in speaking out was “to turn pain into purpose.”
“This Is What You Deserve”
Twitter is one platform where many choose to air their opinions on COVID-19 and the seriousness of the threat that the virus poses.
People have become greatly desensitized to news about COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent study in JMIR Infodemiology.
Researchers studied 1,465 news articles between Jan. 1 and Dec. 2, 2020, as well as corresponding user tweets with keywords like “COVID-19” and “pandemic.”
Findings show reactions of fear and anxiousness to alarming COVID-19 news lessened over the course of 2020, even as the death toll skyrocketed.
This growing de-sensitivity to COVID-19 concerns can explain the hesitation or refusal to accept health experts’ guidance on public safety measures amid the rise in cases and deaths due to the Delta variant, according to the study.
Some people have strong words for those who have been particularly outspoken on their doubts about the serious nature of COVID-19 and necessary safety precautions, and then end up catching the virus or passing away.
For example, Laura Loomer has been vocal about her skepticism surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and how severe the virus is.
“I hope I get COVID just so I can prove to people I’ve had bouts of food poisoning that are more serious and life threatening than a hyped up virus,” she said in a post on Parler, a social networking platform, last December.
Loomer recently announced testing positive for COVID-19 and requested prayers, saying she feels like she “got hit by a bus.”
Online reaction to her diagnosis included both well wishes for a quick recovery and comments like, “She asked for it. Literally” and “Laura Loomer actually wants us to pray for her? Bahahahah.”
Shaming people into better public health practices is ineffective and can be counterproductive, says Josh Pasek, PhD, an associate professor of communication & media and political science at the University of Michigan.
“If at any point people are laughing about somebody else getting sick, that doesn’t serve the purpose of actually improving public health in any meaningful way,” he says.
Some may defend shaming the sick or deceased as a teachable lesson on the seriousness of the virus.
But Pasek says this type of public ridicule is less about the greater public good and more about cultural wars rooted in partisanship.
Rebuilding public trust is one way to heal the divide, he says.
“I will contend that putting the booster shot discussion in public was really a good stylistic move,” he says. “By doing that, you’re able to see the process by which the decisions are getting made.”
Reddit Takes It to a New Level
On Reddit, the popular online community, one private group has turned death notices from public announcements into a cudgel for public shaming of sorts. Users are nominating people for a so-called Herman Cain Award when the person who died was expressly against public health measures and died from COVID-19.
The choice of Cain is questionable. The former business executive, conservative radio host, and 2012 Republican candidate for president died July 30, 2020, months before the first COVID-19 vaccine became available in the U.S.
Still, in the months leading up to his death at age 74, Cain was widely quoted as being against mask mandates, meaning he met at least a few of the qualifications for the award listed on the Reddit private community page: “Public declaration of one’s anti-mask, anti-vaxx, or COVID-hoax views.”
The grisly awards also inspired a Twitter page that anyone with an Internet connection can access.
Here is an example regarding a paramedic who died:
In contrast, his Sept. 1, 2021 obituary posted by local TV station WKYT was just a few straightforward sentences about his role as a firefighter and paramedic in Breathitt County, KY.
Nominations are also made for people outside the U.S. Here is a post related to an anti-vaccine activist in Israel, who reported being in “extremely critical” condition with COVID-19 before his death at age 57:
Another post on Twitter’s Herman Cain Awards site notes that for some, it’s actually not too late:
“Brittany delayed getting vaccinated. Months later, she was hospitalized with COVID pneumonia. Fortunately, she was one of the lucky ones, and she is still alive today. If you’re unvaccinated, please heed Brittany’s warning. This is not a game.”
The Twitter account offers to remove a post only at request of a family member via private message.
There are also examples of people who remain steadfastly anti-vaccine, even while hospitalized for COVID-19 or after the death of a family member. For example, some people reject the vaccine even up until the point they are put on a ventilator.
Patients even become combative in some instances. “Don’t tell me I have COVID. I don’t believe in COVID,” patients tell Carolyn McFarlane, MD, a hospitalist at Saint Alphonsus Boise in Idaho, according to a report from ABC News.
An obituary for 58-year-old Mary Knight of Florida does not mention COVID-19 and states that she “passed away peacefully.” But her daughter told the Daily Beast that no one in the family would be getting the vaccine. Knight was one of the two unvaccinated people who died after an outbreak in a Manatee County municipal building in June 2021.
The State Journal-Register: “Candace Cay Ayers.”
The Washington Post: “Alabama man dies after being turned away from 43 hospitals as covid packs ICUs, family says.”
YouTube: “A Florida Family’s Plea: Get Vaccinated Before It’s Too Late,” MSNBC.
JMIR Infodemiology: “Desensitization to Fear-Inducing COVID-19 Health News on Twitter: Observational Study.”
Parler: @LauraLoomer, Dec. 30, 2020.
Insider: “Right-wing activist Laura Loomer, who once said ‘bad fajitas’ were worse than COVID-19, has tested positive and says she’s in ‘so much pain.'”
Josh Pasek, PhD, associate professor of communication & media and political science, University of Michigan.
Reddit: “Herman Cain Awards.”
WKYT: “Kentucky firefighter dies from COVID-19.”
Carolyn McFarlane, MD, hospitalist, Saint Alphonsus Boise, Idaho.
ABC News: “Even on their death beds, some COVID-19 patients in Idaho still reject vaccination.”
Bradenton.com: “Mary Knight.”
Kelly Wairimu Davis joined WebMD in June 2021. Before that, she interned at CNN as a researcher and at C-SPAN in the American History TV Department. She received her bachelor’s degree from UCLA, where she was a reporter for the Daily Bruin, and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Kelly also runs a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Kenya. She lives in Atlanta.
Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.
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