Thirty-four years ago my daughter Emily was graduating from the McLean Children’s Academy in the Virginia suburb of D.C. of the same name. The ceremony took place in the backyard of the modest clapboard house that had served as her preschool for two years. About fifteen four-year-olds dressed in their Sunday best were lined up ready to perform for their adoring parents, many of whom were wielding video cameras to capture the event for posterity.
The only problem was that the ground was littered with cicadas, both dead and alive. As she welcomed us and previewed the program, the school’s director kept swatting out of her hair and off her shoulders the large brown prehistoric looking creatures dropping from the trees. The kids began with a barely audible song, drowned out by the mating sounds of the thousands of cicadas swarming on this and neighboring properties. When we received the complimentary video of the event a few weeks later, my husband and I burst into laughter at the Monty Pythonesque quality of the event.
This year, two seventeen year cicada cycles later, Brood X emerged in the DelMarVa. I live in New York City now, but my friend Donna regaled me with tales of her dog ingesting and then regurgitating cicadas, a party trick my dog had also mastered way back when. I remember the Washington Post articles that encouraged people to think creatively about cicadas, perhaps viewing them as a delicacy, and, say, coating them with chocolate or stir frying them. Points for trying to turn lemons into lemonade, but … NO THANK YOU.
Now, it appears as if having finally gotten rid of the adult cicadas, Donna and thousands of others in the D.C. area are contending with their larvae. It seems as if the billions of eggs that the cicadas laid on oak leaves became an all-you-can-eat buffet for a microscopic insect called an oak mite. After stuffing themselves with cicada eggs, they drop from the trees onto unsuspecting passersby, whom they proceed to treat as dessert. Dermatologists have been overrun with patients exhibiting itchy welts, pustules and assorted other symptoms from the bug bites, which most of them have never seen before. Fearing bedbugs or fleas, lots of scratching homeowners are calling pest companies only to be told that there is nothing to be done but wait it out.
It’s easy to make jokes about the cicada emergence as a plague of locusts visited upon us by a God determined to show unbelievers his power, and to interpret the oak mites as an “I told you so, but you didn’t listen.” But this year we had a different more deadly plague to contend with. By definition a plague needs to affect several countries at once with disastrous consequences, and COVID certainly qualifies.
Just as vaccinated folks in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast began to emerge from our coronavirus induced plague of over a year of working from home, virtual schooling, endless Amazon deliveries and postponed travel, the microscopic and unwelcome Delta variant showed up. Feeding primarily on the unvaccinated among us, it finds a home in those of us vaccinated as well, creating a “breakthrough infection.” I and many of my friends are itching, not from oak mites but from a burning resentment at this turn of events. COVID is telling all of us through the Delta variant, “I told you to get vaccinated, but you didn’t listen.” And lots of my fellow Americans are still not listening.
According to Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong’s article in the Atlantic, it’s now just as impossible to exterminate the coronavirus as it is to get rid of the oak mites, however much we may be itching to do so. And that’s because 20 to 30% of our fellow citizens refuse to be vaccinated, a majority of them also refusing to wear a mask or practice social distancing. Their reasons range from the religious (God will protect me) to the conspiratorial (Bill Gates has put chips into the vaccine) to simple delusion (I’m young and healthy so it won’t kill me).
The meta plague is the ecosphere of disinformation enabling these views. It’s hard to know how to counter the politicization of medical information. Conservative “thought leaders” are modern-day snake oil salesmen, who, like the cicadas that drowned out the voices of those McLean Children’s Academy graduates, are spoiling our chance to celebrate together, to “graduate” from the pandemic.
When people are more inclined to trust Donald Trump than Anthony Fauci, or are ready to listen to the rantings of Tucker Carlson instead of the pleadings of their local ER docs, or are doing their “research” on FaceBook rather than consulting their family physician, I just don’t know how to get through to them. Maybe if the virus particles were as big as the cicadas it would be harder to pretend that the threat was overblown.
Some antivaxxers may be sincere — if in my view misguided. But just as the oak mites hop onto passersby whether Christian or not, Republican or not, pro-government or not, healthy or immuno-compromised, the Delta virus and its spawn will do the same. We can laugh looking back at my daughter’s preschool graduation and the plague of cicadas that will forever be associated with it. No deaths occurred. No longterm harm was done. I can’t say the same about the current plague of influencers stoking resistance to vaccination. Their propagation of misinformation, distrust and division is a harbinger of much worse to come. I’m afraid their their legacy won’t be funny family videos or itchy welts, and there’s no way to sugar coat the harm they are doing.