The Unbelievable Grimness of HermanCainAward, the Subreddit That Catalogs Anti-Vaxxer COVID Deaths

HermanCainAward is one of the fastest growing subreddits on Reddit.com. It's exactly what it sounds. An archive of people who were hospitalized or killed by COVID. It was named after Republican Herman Cain who died from COVID in late June after he attended a Trump rally in Tulsa. He was also photographed in maskless during the summer 2020. Cains' Twitter account would continue to downplay his death from COVID.
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The concept of the Herman Cain Award is simple but ugly. One entry to the subreddit contains anywhere from two to 16 screenshots of a profile on social media (usually Facebook with last names removed) of someone who died after rejecting safety precautions that could have saved them and others. The purpose of the subreddit is to document the person's journey from COVID theory to COVID practice. The first few screenshots usually show the individual using a consistent set of memes (there are about 30). Some mock Dr. Anthony Fauci and advocate for the right to not be vaccinated. Some warn people that they are experimental rats and offer proper punishments for wait staff who dare to ask about vaccination status. Others refer to unvaccinated people as sheep or proud free lions, or to immigrants as vectors. They also compare vaccination requirements with the Holocaust. They treat the pandemic like a joke, and view those who ignore it as clever or brave, or both. The last few screenshots usually announce the illness, its progress and death. Often followed by a GoFundMe donation for the family. The flair will change to Awarded if someone is just hospitalized.

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It is cruel and a place for unrepentant and heartless schadenfreude. It is a place where death is celebrated. But it isn't the only one. There are many angers that have not been as widely explored, including the anger of Trump voters, Fox News viewers, and QAnon supporters. For example, the exhaustion and fury nurses feel as they work with overcrowded ICUs. Instead of being hailed heroes, they are being accused of murder or worse for their actions in dealing with overwhelmed ICUs. Parents are frustrated at the inability to protect their children, and the destabilizing calculations and adaptations that people are forced to make when, for example, Texas governor prohibits schools from taking safety precautions and two teachers die at one school, forcing closures again. There is the common anger of people who are tired of living in pandemic conditions, and who feel demoralized by the selfishness of their fellow citizens.

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The HermanCainAward subreddit subscriptions are growing exponentially. They went from 2,000 subscribers on July 4, to 5,000 at August's beginning, to more than 100,000 by Sept. 1, to 243,000 Friday to 276,000 now. If this rate is any indication, anti-vaxxers are growing in rage to prolong the pandemic from an anti-social and deadly understanding their rights. It is true that not all subreddits agree to this premise. One nurse, who was exhausted, wrote long posts about the sufferings of one anti-vax patient. She admitted to her own compassion fatigue, but encouraged readers to reflect more on how this terrible pass happened. Many discussions revolve around this question. Most comments are hostile. A collection of screenshots usually elicits one sentiment: The person got his just deserts.

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Is there anything other than schadenfreude when Americans read one after another?

I started reading to try to understand how prosocial impulses can become so distorted that advocates for lifesaving measures such as vaccinespeople who consider themselves to be the good guys are literally celebrating their deaths. Although I am not closer to understanding the situation, something very strange happened to me after reading these records. Despite reading a lot of statistics and case histories about the pandemic and many news articles, r/HermanCainAward was my best source for information on what it is like to be diagnosed with COVID. Because I've read so many stories where ordinary people bragging about politics end up narrating the decline of COVIDwith support from their families, I feel more in touch with the disease. They are much younger than the COVID patients. Try to put a positive spin. Soliciting prayers. Avoiding conversions. They don't expect to die. It is relentless reading. It keeps going the same way. This many people have died and declined is something that only health care professionals have witnessed.

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COVID has been and continues to be a problem because it is virtually invisible to many Americans. Although we medicalize death more than other cultures, the sensible restrictions placed on COVID ward visitors have ensured that the disease that cripples hospitals across the country is largely unnoticed. While we all know that getting on a ventilator can be dangerous and that being on an ECMO machine can make it worse, most people have never heard the sound of lungs when they look like this. People not able to breathe have been seen panicking. Patients that are swollen, puffy and unrecognizable have never been seen. Or lying down. Or their last conversation before going on the ventilator.

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These r/HermanCainAward screenshots don't show all of the stuff, but they do show a lot that you wouldn't see otherwise. You see the suffering. This is usually filtered through defiance or positive thinking that fails. When they are already patients, people post that they don't feel well. They often express their feelings in a simple way, asking for prayers. Contrasting their pompousness in previous posts serves as an intensifier. That they aren't commenting on the same thing they preached so much is a plus. These selfies can be quite brutal. Family members often post photos of patients that are blurred or bloated. You learn to recognize the course of the disease from relatives updates, which often include obsessive medical details such as oxygen saturations and ventilator settings. When the death announcement is made, you discover that the patient had MRSA or an autoimmune disease or suffered from strokes and clots.

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Even though they may be jaded, many r/HermanCainAward users have seen this exact same thing as me: a terrifying glimpse at COVID. The truth is, hundreds of stories about death told through mean-spirited screenshots show that COVID can be worse than anyone really believes.

That's what makes r/HermanCainAward different from other forums that focus on schadenfreude-based topics like r/LeopardsAteMyFace. It is more terrifying than it is satisfying, and the horror won't stop. These individual stories do not produce conversions. These are not situations where anti-vaxxers can learn from their mistakes and get vaccinated. There are rare occasions when relatives or patients regret opposing vaccination and encourage their friends to prevent a similar fate. These are very rare. This massive, repeating record of human suffering is a testament to how easily anti-vax communities can reconcile with the inevitable deaths they will continue to live. Posts about self-sufficiency and individual liberty quickly turn into abjectly dependent appeals. A r/HermanCainAward entry almost requires a call to prayer warriors. The grief of someone who has died is usually gentle and general. He was a good man, he got his angel wings today. It was his time, God called. Families often express their gratitude to medical personnel who took care of their loved ones. It's a sad, if not depressing, resignation. Yet: As chilling as I have been at the way this subreddit can celebrate a death, I am no less chilled by the ease with which bereaved people normalize their losses. It is not acceptable to be 35 years old with three young children and a vaccine free of charge. This is an amazing fact that very few people know about.

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These stories may seem to have no effect on the overall record, but what about a cumulative one? What happens if Americans see these stories one after the other? I'm not sure what it is, but a new subreddit has been gaining steam: the IPA (Immunized To Prevent Award). Many people post pictures of their new vaccination cards and claim that they were convinced by the r/HermanCainAward to not win. This is enthusiastically cheered upon by others. One comment said, "I am not anti-Vax. I was only afraid and confused by all of the misinformation out there." I was truly scared and confused. I was able to get back to reality after a quick glance at the Sub-reddit. My first dose of the Pfizer Vaccine will be arriving in my mailbox next week. I am grateful for your existence.

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The r/HermanCainAward is a dark record from a dark time. It does not reflect a fair or decent award. Cain is not the only one who was uncharitable. He was among those conservatives who believed COVID was real. He supported following CDC guidelines, including social distancing. I don't think that matters. No one can argue that mocking the dead is moral. Or accuse it hypocrisy, virtue signaling or coastal elitism. It's an anti-persuasive place, one that rejects rational appeals to people to be better and instead offers something more primal or horrifying. Who knows? Perhaps it is persuading people because it doesn't want to.

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