In the 1997 movie “Titanic,” the villain Cal solidifies his unlikable persona as the doomed ship is sinking.
Unable to use his wealth and connections to secure a seat on one of the lifeboats, he picks up a lost child, pretending to be the child’s father. Thus meeting the ship captain’s criteria of “women and children first,” he is allowed to board a lifeboat right before a wave of water swamps the Titanic’s deck and drowns the captain himself.
Although the account is fictional, it does conform to the reality of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912, which killed 1,500 passengers and crew. The Cals on that ship were in the minority. Women and children on board did fare better than men when the British passenger liner sunk after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Seventy-five percent of the women survived, as did 50% of the children, according to the History Channel’s website. For men, the survival rate was just 17%.
The altruism shown in the face of mortal peril contributed to the myth that male chivalry, at least on sinking ships, was the norm and that the most vulnerable would be given first consideration when lives were at stake. In truth, the Titanic was the exception.
Almost a decade ago, a pair of Swedish economists, Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, studied 18 maritime disasters that took place between 1852 and 2011. Women and children only enjoyed a better outcome on the Titanic and one other ship. “In every other case, men had the advantage, with an average survival rate of 37% compared to 27% for women and 15% for children,” the History Channel reports. “Rather than ‘women and children first,’ Elinder said, passengers and crew on stricken vessels have historically abided by a very different axiom: ‘Every man for himself.’”
A parallel scenario is playing out in vaccinations for COVID-19.
Ever since the vaccines began being distributed in the United States, demand has far exceeded supply. That has forced states to ration the serum, giving it first to those at the highest risk of either catching the disease or having the worst complications from it.
It’s been a delicate balancing act for government and health officials in many states as they try to take care of the most vulnerable while not letting vaccine sit in freezers unused for too long. Last month, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, frustrated by the slow rollout of immunization, decided to speed things up by following bad advice from the Trump administration and greatly expanding the eligibility criteria for vaccination. That resulted, at least at first, in some of those over the age of 75 being bumped for their shots by younger and healthier individuals.
There have been allegations recently about people coming over from neighboring states to get vaccinated in Mississippi. Individuals who work in this state but don’t reside here are eligible to be vaccinated in Mississippi. More than 5,000 out-of-state residents have received the shots so far, all of whom claim to work here. No one knows for sure whether that’s true, as Mississippi has used an honor system for vaccines.
But if they are lying, this is not a character flaw that only begins on the other side of Mississippi’s borders. There are people in this state, too, who are not telling the truth in order to cut in line. They have claimed to be health care workers when they’re not, or claimed to have qualifying health conditions that they don’t have. Nothing but their own conscience prevents it.
The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, made the decision early on that, in the interest of getting the potentially life-saving vaccines out as quickly as possible, he wouldn’t bog the system down by requiring people to show proof of eligibility when they made their reservations or when they showed up for their shots. As word spread that this was the case, people became emboldened to fib, rationalizing that others were doing the same, and it really didn’t matter anyway.
Such an attitude is disappointing but not surprising.
Fear — especially the fear of dying — brings out the selfishness in mankind, or its obliviousness to the situation of others. Many of those who cut in line probably aren’t thinking about who might be left waiting unvaccinated as a result. They’re focused only on themselves or their families.
As the Titanic was sinking rapidly into the chilly ocean waters, there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board. Those who didn’t get in one could expect to die an unpleasant death. It’s remarkable that there weren’t more people like the fictional Cal among the survivors.
Such chivalry, though, may not have been all that voluntary. There were credible reports that the threat of force was used to assure compliance with the captain’s order to evacuate women and children first.
He apparently didn’t trust an honor system.
nContact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.