I’m a doctor in a family of COVID deniers 

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I am the only physician in a family of farmers. As I witness the pandemic’s devastating health consequences from the frontlines, I feel a fundamental responsibility to share my experience and advice with my loved ones to keep them safe. However, I find myself battling COVID-denial propaganda at every turn. Even my years of medical training have not endowed me with the credibility necessary to break down the sociopolitical barriers that separate my family and me on this life-and-death issue.

Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, I spent my childhood doing chores, playing sports, and going to church. The ideals my rural hometown cherishes – a strong faith, a sturdy work ethic, and a reverence for constitutionalized personal freedoms – were instilled in me from before I could walk. And yet, while those around me seemed content, I felt restless. I longed for the excitement of living in a big city, surrounded by people with vastly different life experiences in comparison to my own.

Today, I live in San Francisco and work as an emergency medicine physician on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while I will always carry pieces of my conservative upbringing with me, most facets of my life have changed since I left my family’s farm for college a decade ago. I am now accustomed to frequent disagreements with my family; however, I struggle to reconcile our differences around a critical topic like COVID-19. As I do my best to convince my family that the pandemic is not an expertly-crafted conspiracy, I am struck by how our vastly different perspectives are more aligned with political beliefs than with modern science. The challenge of balancing my responsibilities on the frontlines while constantly fighting misinformation to keep my family safe has left me deflated.

Most of my family believes that the public health response to COVID-19 is beyond excessive. They agree with the South Dakota governor that a shelter-in-place mandate is far too restrictive on their personal freedoms, and they are proud to use their own gumption to avoid viral spread rather than follow infectious control guidelines from public health experts.

One of my recent conversations with my family digressed into the argument that the pandemic is simply part of a “corrupt agenda that is weakening our society.” I struggle to respond to this sentiment, both as a physician and as a person. How does one begin to grapple with a perspective not grounded in science and facts, but rather based on a prepackaged ideology being delivered as part of a larger political agenda?

As I work tirelessly through long shifts in the emergency department, followed by phone calls with my family who continues to minimize the pandemic, I have gravitated toward a simple answer: keep calling. I try to listen to their thoughts and validate their fears of the unknown. I do so not in silent acquiescence; despite the frequent awkward pauses in conversation and my generalized feeling of unease, I try to engage my family to the best of my ability through careful questioning and by sharing my own fears and experiences.

Most of my colleagues on the frontlines have nominal contact with individuals on this end of the sociopolitical spectrum. When they call home, they are met with affirmations, and their thoughtful cautions are received in earnest. The interactions I experience with my family are quite different; they are not part of my personal echo chamber. I could choose to shut my family out. However, they are still my family, and I choose to continue loving and respecting them. So I will continue to call. I will continue to listen. I will continue to offer advice to help keep my family safe as best I can from 1,500 miles away. And who knows – maybe tomorrow will be different; maybe tomorrow they will listen.

Nicholas Stark is an emergency medicine resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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