Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

COVID Compassion Fatigue

How long can we keep caring about the unvaccinated?
August 9, 2021
COVID Compassion Fatigue
Jacqueline Brooks, a registered nurse, joins other nurses affiliated with the group National Nurses United in reading the names of registered nurses who died during the coronavirus pandemic while demonstrating in Black Lives Matter Plaza May 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. The group placed a pair of shoes "for every RN who has died during this pandemic due to a lack of employer and federal government action to protect nurses and other health care workers from getting infected with COVID-19 at work." (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Well, it’s happening. Hope you didn’t burn all your masks.

Despite the sacrifice from millions who lost work, couldn’t go to school, and lived like hermits for a year in support of the common good, coronavirus is surging again. All thanks to a (large) minority of Americans who stubbornly refuse vaccination.

Just think of the men and women who risked their lives at the frontlines of the pandemic in the early days, back when we didn’t even have enough masks to go around. Doctors. Nurses. Medical support staff. It barely gets mentioned in the morbid counts of coronavirus deaths, but more than 3,600 U.S. healthcare workers died during the first year. Understandably, the thought of fighting through another surge is overwhelming.

A brief sample of recent headlines tells an important story:

Who can blame them? Okay, yeah, we know the types. It’ll be the same folks, mostly a doughy collection of male MAGA mouths, the ones who blamed Simone Biles for not risking becoming a paraplegic on national TV for their viewing pleasure. They’ll say “nurses signed up for this; it’s their job.” But, no, they didn’t.

Medical staff did not sign up for a self-inflicted, voluntary pandemic of the unvaccinated. Vaccines are now readily available at no cost. There’s absolutely no reason for the medical community to be going through this again. As Dr. LouAnn Woodward, University of Mississippi Medical Center vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, explained:

People are burnt out; they’re tired, they’re fatigued. It’s almost impossible to put into words the frustration that they feel and the disappointment of “here we are again” and, honestly, some low level of anger. There are a lot of people in healthcare right now that feel pretty mad about this situation. Part of it is because we know more now. Now, we have a safe and effective tool that we did not have at this time last year. We’ve got the vaccine; we know more, and yet, here we are again.

Additionally, the disinformation about the very care doctors and nurses are providing continues to run rampant with nothing but pleas for understanding from influencers who want us to think that the anti-vaxxers have a totally reasonable concern and that choosing not to get vaccinated is just as valid as choosing to get the jab. Some people like chocolate, some people like butter-pecan.

Last month, an Arkansas nurse named Sunny, who declined to give her full name out of fear of being harassed by COVID deniers, told CNN:

It’s extremely difficult to watch so many people die and then have people tell you on Facebook or in Walmart that you’re a liar. We had people accuse us of giving their loved one something else so that they would die, and we could report it as COVID. We heard it more than once that we were fudging the numbers, or we were killing people on purpose to make COVID look like it was worse than it was or to make it look real when it wasn’t. . . . A lot of nurses have compassion fatigue.

Can you blame her?

Who isn’t feeling waves of compassion fatigue these days? How long can we keep caring about those who refuse the vaccine and so endanger both their own lives and the lives of others?

Looking around, I see a lot of excuses for why people haven’t gotten vaccinated.

  • The CDC didn’t behave with perfect wisdom and communicate every time with clarity.
  • The medical establishment was right about some aspects of COVID, but wrong about others.
  • Vaccinated people don’t show proper respect and understanding for the concerns of the unvaccinated.
  • The FDA hasn’t done final approval for the COVID vaccines.

I’m sure there’s some validity to each of these. But on the other hand, if more than 600,000 deaths haven’t been enough to convince these folks to get the vaccine, then why do we assume that a better CDC press release, or an earlier consensus on non-transmission through fomites, or nicer tweets, or a bureaucratic stamp would change their minds?

If these headlines don’t convince them, nothing will:

All while this is still happening:


Having 30 percent of the country unvaccinated means that there will be more suffering from COVID. It’s just a matter of who bears it and how terrible it is. And the problem is: It won’t just be unvaccinated adults reaping the consequences of their own choices.

More headlines from the past few days:

Put this together with hospital shortages and the spike in pediatric COVID cases and things get even worse.

What does the “freedom to choose” mean for the children who had no choice at all in this matter because they don’t have vaccines ready for them yet?

Choices have consequences. And if a third of the country won’t get vaccinated, then the rest of us are left with our own set of choices. Do we want vaccine passports, workplace vaccine mandates, and masking requirements for fully grown adults—or kids on ventilators? (Warning: watching the video at that link is traumatic, albeit not nearly as traumatic as the experience was for the boy, or his family who suffered through such torment.)

The good news is that the CDC has reported that 70 percent of American adults have received at least one dose of vaccine. That means, even in this incredibly politicized medical environment, an overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of vaccines.

The bad news is that it’s wasn’t enough in time to stop the Delta variant.

So who should we have compassion for? The people who wind up in the ER after refusing to get vaccinated? Or the healthcare workers working around the clock to save their lives? For the hurt feelings of the anti-vaxxers who feel looked down upon? Or the children being hospitalized because a preventable pandemic is raging out of control again?

In a perfect world, we’d feel compassion for all of them. Every life is precious. But it’s been a long 18 months with a lot of tragedy and we’re only human. We’re at the point—passed it, really—where compassion is becoming a finite resource.

Eventually, we’re all going to get fatigued and the compassion will run out. I say this not in celebration, but lament. Because this, too, was a preventable tragedy.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.