Human beings have always balked at being told what to do. That trait is so fundamental to the American identity, it’s a wonder how many leaders think they can bully and shame the public into complying with COVID-19 precautions. If the goal is to beat this pandemic, would-be nannies should take a lesson from Mary Poppins: Be sweet.
Robert F. Kennedy said, “One-fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.” Even with neighbors killed, blinded, or hideously scarred by smallpox, they said “no.” Only a smart inoculation campaign wiped it off the face of the earth. As polio crippled and killed, millions rolled the dice on a wheelchair or iron lung — a contraption that, thanks to another compassionate vaccination strategy, is unknown today except to “The Big Lebowski”’s Arthur Digby Seller.
Insults didn’t eradicate past viruses and they won’t stop this one, which has a far lower fatality rate and visibility. “Wear the damn mask!” is about as effective as shouting, “Relax!” Heck, in the ’80s, every T-shirt reading, “Frankie Says Relax,” prompted two responding, “Who Gives a [Expletive] What Frankie Says?” That Reagan Era spirit of “Red Dawn” abides, and there’s a Wolverine inside each of us who isn’t always easy to ignore.
Having spent four decades in the U.S. Senate, President Biden should know how to find solutions with obstinate opponents, especially since he ran as an alternative to a Don Rickles-in-Chief. Unfortunately, the “unity” candidate who counted everyone from segregationists to Republicans as friends, couldn’t resist belittling governors like Greg Abbott of Texas as “Neanderthals” for ending their mask mandates and opening their states.
What if the president had invited those governors to the Oval Office? He could have pointed to the panel FDR had fitted on the Resolute Desk to hide his polio-stricken legs, something sure to inspire the wheelchair-bound Mr. Abbott, and segued into a discussion about bipartisanship in fighting WWII. It might not have worked, but when catching flies, use honey.
Now we’re at the point where masks are more political than ever, and people openly lament that cases in Texas have hit a record low. Personally, I’m not surprised. I wore mask for years as a veterinary technician and — just as Dr. Anthony Fauci said early on when dismissing their usefulness — I can tell you that most people use them incorrectly, as if they’re Captain Kirk throwing up the shields. They slack off on social distancing, touching their faces, handwashing. Some have been wearing the same mask since the first impeachment!
I have inoculated thousands of animals, and here’s a tip: Yelling doesn’t work; Scooby Snacks do. Pets, of course, have no choice about getting poked, but we’re still compassionate, just as we are with children. Dr. Albert B. Sabin had the brains to invent the first oral polio vaccine for kids, and the wisdom to add cherry flavoring.
How many cherries could Congress have bought with that $1.5 billion budgeted for COVID-19 commercials? How about $10,000 prizes for getting the shot and $1,000 for covering nose and mouth properly? Yes, it should be enough that these actions help ensure good health, but people don’t line up for insurance salesmen; they line up for Powerball tickets.
And since we’re talking about compassion, note that for every tinfoil hat or anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan opposing vaccines, there are thousands of Native and African Americans who — thanks to government atrocities like the Tuskegee Experiment and 1832 Indian Vaccination Act — have legitimate doubts.
Getting cats into a carrier is a lot harder than walking Puppy Bacala on a leash. And like cats, independence is part of our DNA, from Armstrong walking on the moon to Evel Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon and the Fonz jumping that shark. Those were gambles just like walking around unprotected. But casinos are more popular than insurance offices, too.
Going forward, those in charge of strategy would do well to remember the story of 5-year-old Jeffrey Sherman. Sixty years ago, his father asked if the polio vaccine hurt. Imagine if he’d cried, “They were meanies and it burns!” Such stories would’ve spread on the playground and inoculation rates would have plummeted.
Instead, Jeffrey giggled.
The doctor had poured it onto a sugar cube.
That was one sweet step for mankind, and the next day, it inspired Jeffrey’s dad to write a song. Our leadership would do well to adopt its chorus as the motto for beating this disease. It goes, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”
• Dean Karayanis is content producer for “The Rush Limbaugh Show” and host of “History Author Show” on iHeartRadio.