Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Every country has Covid skeptics, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. The United States is hardly the only place where some people are afraid of vaccines, angry at pandemic restrictions, open to wild conspiracy theories, and distrustful of experts. But there’s one key reason why the world’s wealthiest nation, home to many of the planet’s top public health experts, is the red-hot bubbling epicenter of a pandemic that just won’t quit.
The US is one of a few major countries where the people pushing against common-sense measures hold positions of power, where they can shape policy, influence large swaths of the population, and weaponize the pandemic for their own political benefit. (In Brazil, another place where this has happened, President Jair Bolsonaro, known as “the Trump of the Tropics,” faces investigations for his pandemic shenanigans and their catastrophic consequences).
Some in the Republican Party have turned the coronavirus crisis into the vehicle they hope will propel them to new political heights.
As President Joe Biden tries to slow the deadly march of the virus, it’s not hard to see what’s behind his opponents’ continuing efforts to thwart the White House’s plans. It’s a cynical game of unspeakable cruelty. If Biden fails to contain the pandemic, their hope is that they can use that failure to gain control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections and pave the way for a Republican president in 2024.
After Biden revealed his six-step plan against the still raging pandemic, which includes vaccines mandates, Fox News slammed him as an “authoritarian,” and Republican officials vowed to fight his new mandates in court. It was another battle in their campaign to defeat Biden by undercutting America’s public health efforts.
Evidence of this strategy was visible at the Conservative Political Action Conference in July, when the crowds cheered after a speaker said the US government failed to “sucker” people into getting vaccinated. (Biden wanted to get 70% of the population vaccinated with at least one shot by July 4, a goal the US reached a month later). Imagine that – they were effectively cheering for the virus.
Meanwhile, individual politicians are focused on advancing their own careers. It seems people like Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott, and others, are trying to outdo each other with measures that defy common sense. One could be forgiven for thinking they want the virus to win.
Their goal is to try to emerge as the heirs to former President Donald Trump, who pushed against the guidance of public health experts, motivated at least in part, no doubt, by fears of what pandemic restrictions might do to the economy, and hence to his reelection prospects. Trump also urged his followers to take on Democratic governors who were desperately trying to keep hospitals and morgues from overflowing with Covid victims. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” he tweeted in all caps, among many other inflammatory and harmful exhortations.
It seems his would-be heirs took note of the way Trump’s bravado appealed to his followers, so now they are taking up the mantle to look tough and champion some twisted version of freedom – even if it kills. And kill it does.
The economy, by the way, will remain vulnerable as long as the virus is thriving. The only way to solidify growth is to bring the coronavirus under control. Unfortunately, the threat of Covid-19 now is enormous, with roughly 150,000 new cases and 1,500 deaths a day. It’s hard to fathom that much heartbreak, especially when it’s preventable.
To prevent that, we need common sense and discipline.
DeSantis leads the pack when it comes to fighting against reasonable measures. This supposed champion of free markets and business has raised the most restrictive measures against Covid protections. Many Republican-led states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia among them – have passed laws banning proof of vaccination requirements, but Florida was one of the first to tell companies how to run their businesses by prohibiting them from requiring so-called vaccine passports from customers.
In other countries, showing proof of vaccination in the midst of a pandemic is now routine. After all, it makes perfect sense. It encourages more people to get vaccinated, protects vulnerable individuals, and allows a return to some semblance of normality. Importantly, it also helps businesses remain open. In the US, however, vaccine requirements are politically explosive.
Even businesses like the cruise industry that see vaccine requirements as their only route to survival have to contend with Florida’s absurd and counterproductive rules.
As the cruise industry gasped to stay alive, DeSantis nearly sank it with an order that would have created fines of up to $5000 per passenger for requiring proof of vaccination, which would potentially amount to millions in fines for every trip. The order boggled the mind. After all, one of the first things we learned in the earliest days of the pandemic is that on a passenger ship, Covid-19 can spread like wildfire on dry timber.
The courts have also overruled Florida’s outrageous ban of face mask mandates in schools. Once again, it seems DeSantis has forgotten the old Republican passion for communities to decide what goes on in their schools. DeSantis went so far as to threaten to withhold funding and school officials’ salaries if they defied his executive order and required students to wear masks.
DeSantis is appealing that ruling as well, but a judge ruled Wednesday that schools can ignore the governor’s protestations while the case moves through the courts. Losing the court battle, however, is not a big problem for DeSantis, so long as he can bask in the glow of his defiance. Meanwhile, thousands of Floridians become sick and hundreds die each day.
It’s not just the governors, of course. There’s the right-wing media machine that steadily pumps out disinformation. Leading that charge is, of course, Fox News, which features popular hosts like Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham, whose programs are a showcase of material to undercut the fight against the pandemic. They have, for example, said the vaccines could be dangerous, touted unproven drugs and railed against mask-wearing as an untenable affront against freedom, never mind the evidence that it helps save lives.
It seems the point of spreading all this disinformation and skepticism is to stoke distrust in science and institutions in order for right-wing figures to boost their own standing and, more importantly, undercut the Biden administration and so strengthen the GOP’s election chances.
Playing with people’s lives for sheer political gain is a morally repugnant tactic. Those who are promoting false cures and pushing against vaccines and masks to improve their political prospects are contributing to thousands of new deaths, destabilizing the economy, and keeping the rest of us from getting back our lives.