Noble: Bad Samaritans
In a social media post, my former professor described getting roughed up by a group of malcontents outside Whole Foods in Brooklyn. My initial reaction was that these jerks were messing with the wrong man — not Chuck Norris wrong, but Tom Hanks wrong. Surely karma comes for those who pick on the nicest among us. My next thought was why — on a busy city street in broad daylight — had no one intervened?
Research prompted in part by the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 sought to explain bad Samaritans, or the “bystander effect.” Initial reporting suggested many people heard her screams, but none came to her aid. Later investigations revealed that two people heard her screams but did not want to get involved.
Still, her murder prompted researchers to examine when and why people render aid to strangers — or not. Studies found that individuals alone, rather than in groups, are more likely to render assistance. Groups diffuse responsibility, and the group itself exerts an inhibitory effect.
While not a perfect analogy, I find myself in a situation that feels similar. To be clear, I have no compunction confronting people dumping furniture at the recycling site, failing to pick up after their dogs or scuffling at the post office. My motivation for not speaking out sooner was to withhold oxygen fueling the toxicity I have witnessed at weekly Eagle County Board of Commissioners meetings.
While most county residents are going about their lives, a small, motivated group of individuals descends upon the county commissioner meetings with their prepared scripts to inveigh against masks, vaccines and COVID-19 testing with a heavy dose of old-time religion thrown into the mix.
Several claim, unironically, to have “done their own research,” as if Googling were comparable to a doctoral or medical degree. In a textbook display of motivated reasoning they cite debunked studies from India, the efficacy of ivermectin, the ineffectiveness of masks, and many other arguments to support their erroneous claims.
Some drop the pretense of scientific authenticity altogether and go straight to their primary source: the Bible. At Thursday’s meeting, several people ceded their time to a pastor from Basalt who invoked the Ten Commandments as to why parents, not medical experts or public health specialists, should be the arbiters on mask-wearing.
When I describe to friends and neighbors what I have observed, they express surprise. Their astonishment can be distilled thusly: disbelief that people with those views live in our community and dismay they had not heard about it sooner. It turns out there are bubbles within bubbles.
In a previous column, I cited the starkly different outcomes between the strategy Taiwan took — contact-tracing, quarantines mask-wearing to the result that COVID-19 deaths are under 900 in a country of more than 23 million — with Florida’s tragic lack of responsible leadership and staggering 55,000 deaths in a population of 22 million.
In a public health crisis, the consequences of decisions by elected leaders can be measured in lives. Eagle County has lost 31 residents to COVID-19. In comparison, La Plata County, which has a population close to Eagle’s, has lost 51 residents. Fremont County, which has even fewer residents, has lost 73. Eagle County is an outlier. Most counties of similar size across the country have fared much worse, such as Autauga County, Alabama, at 140 COVID deaths and Boone County, Illinois, with 95 deaths.
Thankfully, the decisions made by our county commissioners, informed by medical and public health experts like Public Health Director Heath Harmon saved lives.
I am grateful to my fellow residents who wore masks and got vaccinated to protect themselves from the virus and diminish the chance of spreading it to others.
I am especially grateful for our county government workers, first responders, front-line workers, educators and medical staff that worked long hours throughout the pandemic.
Social cohesion is measured by pro-social behavior. A positive takeaway from research into the bystander effect found that socially cohesive groups help one another, and an attack on one is interpreted as an attack on the group. By all measures, Eagle County displayed remarkable cohesion throughout the pandemic, the boisterous mini mob notwithstanding.
Because it is everyone’s right to petition their elected officials, the weekly harangue of our county commissioners will continue. However, rather than remain silent, I can ensure that everyone else is aware of it.
Claire Noble can be found online at Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.