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To end COVID, Californians can’t ignore anti-masks forever

Blaine D. Pope hadn’t planned on going viral. He had just planned to come home and make a peanut butter sandwich.

But that was before the gentle-mannered teacher arrived at his daughter’s school in Santa Monica one afternoon this week and found a group of anti-masks waving signs and shouting conspiracy theories at the parents and students.

You know the guy. Those who claim – wrongly – that COVID-19 is “the same as the flu” and that anyone who wears a mask or agrees to be vaccinated has been “brainwashed” by a mysterious “they”.

Most of the people in the Pope’s position would have simply walked away, perhaps rolling out the window to shout a curse word or two in the process, but still following the wise advice of an Internet elder not to feed the trolls.

Pope, who taught business at Cal State Northridge but has a background in public health, didn’t hit the road. Instead, for almost 20 minutes, he and his 11-year-old daughter had what can only be described as an extraordinarily calm and even serious conversation with a couple of men eager to cast doubt on everything from the death toll from COVID-19 to the existence of climate change.

“Honestly, if it hadn’t been for my daughter’s request” to take a closer look at the protesters, Pope later told me, “I would have just come home and made a sandwich.”

But he stayed, asking a man carrying a “Masks RA Compliance Check” sign, “What’s the real problem here?”

“Freedom, brother,” said the man to Pope, who is black. Then he waved a hand over his pale, bare face, indicating where a mask would go. “It is a form of slavery.”

That this civil conversation, captured on video by a reporter from the Beverly Hills Courier, was abnormal enough to go viral on Twitter speaks volumes about the normalcy of divisions in this country. It is also a testament to the abnormal efforts that will be required to persuade more Americans – especially the COVID-19 skeptics among us – to get vaccinated.

In short, to truly end the pandemic, it will take at least some of us with brains to chat – I’m sorry, have calm, reasoned conversations – with willful idiots.

I realize that this does not seem necessary at the moment. After all, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are at record levels in California. And this week, public health officials allowed Los Angeles County to reopen much of its economy, easing restrictions on bars, cinemas and theme parks. Many other countries are on the verge of doing the same.

Meanwhile, nationwide, about 45% of the population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In California, the rate is even higher, just over 50%.

And, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of COVID-19 are expected to drop significantly by the end of July and will continue to decline thereafter, even as the coronavirus continues to circulate – and new variants emerge. . – with terribly fatal consequences in other parts of the world.

But in all the cheerful talk about an American reopening, there is the warning that in order for this to become a permanent reality, people must continue to wear masks up close and, more importantly, more people must do so. vaccinate.

President Biden said this week that he wants 70% of American adults to have received at least one dose by July 4. But vaccination rates continue to drop, and tens of millions of Americans say they are still reluctant to get vaccinated, meaning the task now is to win over the indifferent, the hesitant and the resistant.

In parts of Los Angeles, doctors have been making a version of it for weeks, especially after federal authorities temporarily halt distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine to investigate reports of a bleeding disorder. rare but serious blood.

For example, Jasmine Morataya, a medical assistant who helps run the vaccination site at the Kedren Community Health Center in South Los Angeles, said she spent a lot of time answering questions from people who are far away. to be conspiracy theorists, but worry about the possible side effects.

“All you’re trying to do is educate people and let them make choices,” she said, “because at the end of the day it’s their body.

In general, research has shown that the best strategy for persuading people to get vaccinated is to rely on reliable sources, such as pastors and doctors, to answer questions and provide factual information. I can only assume that’s why the CDC brought in characters from “Sesame Street” for a slew of new pro-vaccine commercials. Because, you know, who doesn’t trust Elmo?

Non-Muppets are another matter.

“I understand,” Pope told me. “People are tired of this shit from these idiots who just can’t seem to let them soak in, read science, be logical, be rational.

After enduring years of a polarized and toxic political climate, most people lacked the patience to tolerate people with different opinions. But that’s exactly why the Pope has said he accepts his daughter’s wish to speak to anti-masks. He wanted her to understand what so many of us seem to have forgotten how to do – or just become unwilling to do.

“I think this is an important ethical question,” he said. “There are people like that out there, and you will have to interact with them. So the question is, what tone do you take with them if you want to engage with them? It doesn’t have to be a loud game. “

He said he told her that “all these things that you are learning in school right now, questions of ethics, of morals, of climate change, of history, of math.” All of this to equip you with critical thinking skills that you need to interact with people like this as you will meet people like these in your life. “

The Pope acknowledges that the anti-masks waving signs the other afternoon were there to “whip up the propaganda” and “create doubt” with their proselytizing lies to the students and parents of Santa Monica.

“But I believe that as human beings,” he said, “some of these people will go to bed at night wondering what that is what this black doctor was really trying to say.

That’s the plan anyway. Plan B is still that peanut butter sandwich.

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