What Do We Do With All This Rage?

It has to go somewhere

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Things feel just incredibly bleak and bad right now. They’ve felt this way for a long time, so what I’m really talking about are a few extra degrees of bleakness and badness. Throughout the pandemic, I feel as if I’m constantly adding new layers of emotion. When I add a new one, the old ones don’t go away, in fact, they often get worse, too. Not everyone’s layers are the same, obviously, but sometimes you can sense — from news reports and being online — a predominant cultural feeling.

From my vantage, the primary feeling during the early months of the pandemic was a mix of pure anxiety and fear. As the months went on, a dominant feeling of exhaustion layered atop the anxiety/fear. In the mid-summer delta surge, it felt like the new predominant layer was hopelessness — that the pandemic was unending. Lately, I feel the new top layer is an acute anger.

More precisely: it is a deep, seething rage, one that seems to exist so close to the surface of our outward facing selves that it can appear at any moment, almost uncontrollably. I see it in myself on occasion — a Covid headline will throw me into a spiral of resentment that’s unfamiliar to me in that I can’t really anticipate what will trigger it. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon with family and friends. I’ve been in conversations that have turned toward climate or Covid or false claims of election fraud and watched people come-to, mid-sentence unaware they’d raised their voices to a yell.

I see it, too, in endless anecdotes and stories. A few weeks ago Katherine Miller wrote a fantastic essay on how American society right now feels acutely “soaked through with anger, and unpredictably so.” Miller’s piece runs through a laundry list of incidences of public aggression that, when taken together, is deeply unnerving — the slew of aggressive TSA-logged instances of passenger disturbances on flights, the fights in the stands at sporting events, the rash of violence in public aimed at Asian Americans, to name a few. In isolation, the stories feel like the grim dispatches you might catch on a given nightly newscast. But there’s a frequency and charge to many of these incidents that feels fresh to me.

Some of the most chilling examples come from the frontlines of the American Covid crisis. In the Mountain West, some hospital systems are under so much strain from unvaccinated patients that they have been forced to ration care. The near-collapse of the healthcare system in these states (and in Canada) has been met with an increase in violent behavior toward medical professionals. As NBC News recently reported:

In Branson, Missouri, a medical center recently introduced panic buttons on employee badges because of a spike in assaults. Violence and threats against medical professionals have recently been reported in Massachusetts, Texas, Georgia and Idaho.

There are endless examples of Covid rage, like last Friday when a school board meeting in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho was shut down by protesters.

Dispatches from Montana offer a similarly grim picture. A public health officer in Plains was forced to resign last week. In his resignation letter he cited “the strife and conflict coming from a minority of people objecting” to his recommendations for Covid treatment. In Ravalli County, Montana, residents protested “to get the wording in a letter the health department sends to people who test positive for COVID-19 from giving ‘isolation instructions,’ to giving ‘isolation recommendations.’” Inside the state’s ICUs, health care workers are exhausted and dealing with, well, this:

Patients or their loved ones mistreating doctors and nurses. Threats have on occasion required a police response. Screaming, profanity-laden insults are a daily occurrence. One patient threw his own feces at a doctor. Some, even in the face of an intubation tube, question the need to be vaccinated or the effectiveness of the medicine being prescribed.

Dr. Sara Nyquist, an emergency medicine physician, said she has been asked by a patient if she is a Republican or a Democrat.

“I said, ‘I am your doctor,’” she recalled. “You do wonder how we got here.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the far right’s conspiratorial embrace of vaccine hesitancy and the Republican Party’s embrace of a durable alternate version of reality, it’s not too hard to see how we got here. Sadly, where we’re going only looks worse. The next stage of this furious protest against the lifesaving vaccines appears to be refusing the ICUs altogether and committing themselves to hospice care to undergo their own treatments, which include nebulizing hydrogen peroxide. And while I’m not surprised, I find this level of politically-driven brainwashing terrifying. It’s basically a full break from reality, driven in large part by rage and distrust toward establishment systems.

This type of rage begets its own rage and resentment. Health care professionals are burned out, bone tired, and grappling with levels of death, denial and anger that are unfathomable to outsiders. One doctor described what he’s feeling to the Missoulian as a great “moral distress.” But beyond that distress is a building level of resentment and disillusionment. In Alabama, one doctor wrote on Facebook that, starting on October 1st, he would stop treating unvaccinated patients for Covid-related issues. Other doctors in hard-hit areas like Florida have made similar, fed-up pledges. For the most part, health care workers remain remarkably empathetic and dedicated in spite of the Covid deniers — but it’s also unclear how long that can last.

Recently, I’ve spent hours on Reddit’s r/nursing, reading testimonials from despondent, burned-out nurses. It’s heartbreaking. Last month, a user who says they are a Covid ICU nurse described a phone conversation with the family of an unvaccinated Covid patient that has, at this point in the pandemic, become typical. A snippet:

Daughter: So why isn’t she eating? Y’all letting her starve??

Me: Even seconds off of the mask could be detrimental. She cannot even sip from a straw. I tried this morning to let her have a drink but she’s too short of breath to even put her lips around the straw. Eating isn’t an option for her.

Daughter: Why not?

Me: Repeats exactly what I said again

Daughter: Well if I could just get her home, we could feed her. She wasn’t this sick when she came to the hospital, now y’all gonna let her starve to death?

Me: completely over the conversation She would die if you took her home.

Daughter: Why am I just now hearing about this?

Me: About what?

Daughter: She could DIE?!

At the end of the post the nurse is exasperated. “These people... these people vote... I have no empathy anymore,” they confess. In another post, one nurse is even more blunt: “To the ICU nurse who convinced your family not to get vaccinated,” they write, “Fuck. You.”

Elsewhere online, the anger is palpable. Both Choire Sicha at New York and Lili Loofbourow at Slate have written about r/HermanCainAward, the subreddit that presents an ‘award’ to Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers who die from Covid. Loofbourow wrote that the subreddit is “cruel, a site for heartless and unrepentant schadenfreude. This is a place where deaths are celebrated, and it is not the only one.” The subreddit is also growing exponentially — from just 2,000 subscribers in July to 323,000 as of Sunday. “If that rate is any indication, rage is growing toward anti-vaxxers deliberately prolonging the pandemic out of an anti-social and deadly understanding of their rights,” Loofbourow wrote.

As writers like Sicha (who had a good thread about the subreddit recently) point out, some of the HermanCainAward subreddit members argue their anger is more than justified and, perhaps, is even helpful in putting pressure on reluctant unvaccinated people to get the jab. “Harm reduction and health education are enacted in places you expect it least,” Sicha wrote.

I think that may very well be true. And, frankly, I’m less interested in what the proper response to all this trauma ought to be. What I can’t seem to get past though is the sheer amount of anger out in the world right now. Whether that anger is righteous, productive, or completely and totally unjustified obviously matters in terms of how much credence to give it. And yet, when it comes to our collective misery, it doesn’t really matter where the rage is coming from — we feel it all the same.

I’ve struggled with framing this piece because I don’t know if I have a ton to add to the observation that our rage levels are high and getting higher. But I can’t stop thinking about it. The main question occupying my mind is: Where does all that rage go?Eventually, the pandemic will subside. Health care workers will have a slight reprieve from this hell. But the immense grief and PTSD will stick around. I imagine the anger and resentment will, too. What happens then? I have little doubt that most health care workers will continue to serve all patients admirably but, still, the memories of the physical and verbal assaults will linger. And what of the Covid deniers’ rage? The true Covid denier/anti-vaxx zealots are a vocal, slim minority of Americans, but it’s still chilling to think of the pandemic as the moment where a meaningful fraction of politically-motivated Americans split from the medical establishment completely.

What happens to the rest of us? What about the parents who are furious with their neighbors for jeopardizing their children by opposing and rolling back mask mandates? Where does their rage go? What about the immunocompromised Americans and their family members who have been driven back into their home or made sick due to reckless anti-vaxxers?

I’ll use myself as an example. Where I live, cases have surged as a result of unvaccinated individuals falling ill and spreading the virus. Hospitals are at capacity or close. People I know and love are postponing important medical appointments or having them cancelled because of a lack of demand. Everyone else is merely at higher risk of getting sick, even though they’re vaccinated. I consider myself quite lucky — I’m hopeful most people in my life will, ultimately, be okay. And yet I am still furious. It’s a kind of anger that’s changed how I see the world and those around me. Where I live feels less safe and just a little less like home and I find that just crushingly sad.

When I walk around public spaces now — no matter where — I find myself thinking about the vaccination status of those around me and whether some reckless person will turn me into a vector for disease that will get my father-in-law or my friends' kids sick. Pre-vaccines, I remember lamenting that the pandemic had the negative effect of making ‘other people’ dangerous. But I’d argue this post-vaccination moment has a more pernicious social effect. I am weirdly more aware and skeptical of ‘other people,’ despite the unvaccinated being a minority in the country.

I wish this wasn’t the case. I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to bleed out empathy, a virtue I cherish. But I’m angry. Unlike the HermanCainAward redditors, I don’t wish for the unvaccinated to grow ill and die. I don’t want anyone to die. I guess, in some ways, that means I have less of an easy outlet for my anger. Unvaccinated people getting sick and dying isn’t some kind of win. It’s another loss in a pandemic marked by untold losses. But I’m mad on behalf of so many people that I have trouble articulating it (this post has inexplicably taken me days to write). And so I sit here stewing over wasted months and lives.

I know plenty of people who are uncomfortable with the effect the pandemic has had on their personalities. As I write this, I mostly feel deflated. But anger and resentment can be channeled in untold ways. The anger can breed apathy or action. It can spur lasting movements toward change. It can also lead to violence and further fracture. It’s possible that many of us will sublimate it, only to have it fester and infect our interior lives, where it will be directed on those we know and love instead of its intended targets. Or, as Sicha noted in his thread, perhaps a collective sense of anger can have surprising effects — especially when enacted in places where you expect it least.

At the start of the pandemic, as the death toll climbed, I couldn’t stop thinking about the volume of grief humans were experiencing. And there’s that, too. But today, I am preoccupied with how a growing anger might change us, even against our will. Just like our grief, the frustration and rage has to go somewhere. I realize that, for many people, these feelings are not new and that the myriad privileges of my life have protected me from experiencing them as others have. But it doesn’t change these feelings I have. And it doesn’t change that terrifying sense of foreboding.

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