On Immunity: COVID-19 and the Paradox of Parenthood

By Heather Marshall

What I found most compelling about Eula Biss’s On Immunity was how it wed scientific data and logical arguments with emotional and ethical appeals in hopes of reaching the hesitant and the phobic towards vaccination who feel as though they have been left outside of the medical industry. As someone with an older sister who works in public health and who herself became a mother only this summer, the dire importance of Biss’s ‘mother-to-mother’ approach was not lost on me. My sister, an expert in her field, was still plagued with self-doubt when it came to deciding what products her infant son should be exposed too,  fear over both his own well-being and the judgement of her fellow parents making her reconsider again and again which resource to trust in a way she never had before. What before might have seemed fringe or ill-conceived became difficult to ignore, when the potential risk of belittling it was at a far higher magnitude. Biss understands that parents are far from purely rational beings, that the human desires to nurture and protect their offspring can sabotage their best interests. She argues for the importance of vaccines with emotion and empathy, knowing that if purely scientific approaches towards vaccine evangelism were effective, then there would be far fewer fence sitters or deniers to convert in the first place.

            Biss adroitly identifies that the onus of healthcare is placed squarely on the mother’s shoulders by a paternalistic system in the West,  and how social pressure to invest much of the female identity and esteem in mothering creates the perfect storm of being suggestible consumers for fear of being accused as a ‘bad mother’ if they choose they wrong product. This is exacerbated by the specifically American phenomenon of the medical marketplace, wherein those seeking healthcare are inclined to consider themselves as consumers purchasing drugs and services based in their own belief systems, rather than clients seeking advisement from experts. The environment of medical equivocation this creates, where doctors, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals are incentivized to respect illogical, unethical positions in order to not be seen as violating perceived consumer freedoms, and consumers are deliberately kept off balance and full of self-doubt by the alternative medical industry, is one rife with the potential for pandemics.

            Parental (and specifically maternal) fear of judgement is coming to a head in the Coronavirus pandemic, as many caregivers around the world are being forced to choose between the health of their families and their child’s education, as schools open in full or hybrid capacities. This is further complicated by widespread expectations to pre-emptively ‘reopen’ the economy forcing parents to return to work in some regions (such as the southern United States), leaving some families no choice but to expose themselves and their children to risk at school because neither having a stay-at-home parent or affording child care are economically viable. For those that do have the financial ability to choose between school and home, there remains the fear on one hand that they are doing irreparable psychological harm by keeping their children from interacting with teachers and peers, by disrupting their normalcy, and on the other that that normalcy is an illusion not worth the vast physical risk it poses to the community. Regardless of choice, these parents must live with being called selfish by those on opposite spectrum of society.

            The refusal of both American and Canadian governments to act in the interest of public health and keep schools closed, instead making the burden of public health a personal responsibility, makes the ‘choice’ of fates for child and family, and thereby town and nation, often not a choice at all. As long as economic benefits are weighed even or superior to reducing case numbers and case mortality, many who would otherwise abide quarantine regulations and stay with their kids are forced to subject not just themselves but their children to the crucible of COVID-19. This disproportionately effects families of lower socioeconomic strata, who are in turn more likely to be people of colour, as they are the least likely to have the luxury of not working and as such are virtually conscripted into the effort to reopen the economy. Ironically, these pre-emptive measures to return to financial normalcy are only serving to prolong the pandemic in the long-run, trapping such regions in subsequent waves of outbreak.