For two years now, we have faced an unexpected, unknown monster. COVID and its various forms have surprised and challenged all of us. Each of our lives is reeling from different interactions from the novel pandemic. In April 2020, the American Embassy sent a chilling email to Americans living in Japan. They suggested Americans leave the country immediately or hunker down for some indefinite period.
Initially, I chose to stay in Japan. My life in Tokyo was clean, low-tension, and bike-friendly; an excellent place to lay low. In Japan, ex-pats left, social life dried up, and the calendar became riddled with canceled events. New strands & COVID scares kept people home. I found new hobbies and took long, solo walks. As time wore on, the discomforts in my Tokyo life grew, as did a longing to see my family. In the early summer of 2021, when shots were available for Tokyo residents, I urgently took my first vaccine. Pre-Olympics, at least half of Tokyo was still unvaccinated. By August 2021, I was ready to face and see a different world. When I left Tokyo, I naively expected last summer to be the end of this conundrum.
Before heading back to the continental USA, I wanted to prepare myself for reverse culture shock and thought stopping here on the Big Island of Hawaii would help. Instead, when I first arrived in August 2021, I got a new culture shock. So many stores and restaurants here seemed oblivious to COVID. I went into a south island coffee shop with some acquaintances and nearly had a panic when I noticed no one was masked. I ended up stepping outside to keep my cool. Later on that first trip, we drove through Hilo where I saw a city block of anti-vaxxers holding demonstrations.
The few times I engaged in honest conversations with COVID deniers, I saw Swiss-cheese logic in place for the fundamentals of reasoning. For the sanctity of my surroundings, I did not push for agreements. Instead, I just started listening. In trying to understand and know this place, I noticed an aversion to the mainland. People moved to this remote island to find a place that is not America, but still is technically in America. I see a distrust of the government, disdain for nosy neighbors, and a strange disregard for science. Here, the appreciation for science is limited to the bounties of fruits in nature. This part of Hawaii island, the Kau region, also has an outsized share of poverty, hunger, and homelessness.
This island gave me an actual culture shock. A few words, overheard from my time here: —Why should I pay the DMV $200 to register my car? — I pay for snacks with my EBT, but will pay cash for the beers. — Let me advise you on cars, but I don’t believe anyone’s expertise on anything else.
Growing up in a family of doctors, I take a different attitude towards expertise—especially medicine. My mother, raising two children, returned to school to get credentialed to continue practicing medicine in Georgia. My sister and I were lucky. For minor coughs and fevers, our doctor-Mom could fix us up without visiting the clinic. Did the rest of the world forget that modern medicine has reduced human suffering, increased our lifespan, and sometimes improved the quality of that lifespan?
But, of course, American medical treatment is costly, bloated, and skewed towards a defensive practice of medicine. Perhaps the companion to our medical industry, the pharmaceuticals eroded some trust after all those ads suggesting you nudge your doctor into a prescription. After working towards better health in my own life, I hear the loudest and most extreme anti-vax voices growing in adherents from the sheer rage. I get the rage (there is so much to rage about: voting rights, a social safety net, women’s issues, climate change, to name a few), but I also have a certain respect for biology.
How Does This Even Work?
Nonetheless, our general knowledge of science is relatively low for an increasingly technologized world. Unsurprisingly, our health is poor, and as a country, we have suffered an enormous loss of life in the last two years. Ironically, the country still has to import doctors, engineers, and scientists to keep our high-tech industry competitive. Our attachment to the luxuries of technology only matches our distrust of science here. At this moment, we can re-examine our lives. I love the audacity of Naomi Klein’s perspective in the Shock Doctrine. Can we use this moment to learn how we might re-align priorities? How about education, health care, and genuine housing equality. These factors undermining general public health come from poor public education, a distrust for science, and a disrespect for the government. The anti-vacciners seem to be right at this subset.