The recent actions of the Republican governors of Florida and Texas are nothing short of stupefying. As the Delta variant rages in their states, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are aggressively taking stands against masking and vaccine mandates. Steve thinks there is an obvious explanation for their incongruous stances.
The latest convo topic on the bi-monthly college buddy Zoom cocktail hour is “Permanent Covid:” the growing belief that there will never be an “end” to Covid, and that our lives – and those of our children and grandchildren -- are destined to be permanently afflicted and constricted by a virus that will never go away.
One theory is that “Permanent Covid” will essentially lock in conditions, behaviors, and practices as they are settling in today. States that currently enjoy high vaccination rates will continue to be safer, and yet ironically more prudent. Guided by science, these generally Blue states will continue to periodically re-impose masking and social distancing protocols to contain the virus during periods of increased risk. In Blue America, the pandemic will be managed much like a chronic illness is in an individual organism… through medication, behavioral modification, and vigilance.
Meanwhile, the states that have low vaccination rates may benefit to a small degree from warmer climates, but will generally continue to voluntarily opt for higher rates of transmission rates, hospitalization, and death rather than take the steps necessary to contain the virus.
The refusal of the major population blocks in these states to submit to vaccination could create a breeding ground for an endless flow of variants, with some proving to be ever more virulent and contagious than the last.
Unless travel is restricted between states – a step that
should now be seriously considered -- the failure to control the virus in the low
vaccination areas will effectively cement a state of “Permanent Covid” for the
entire nation. Of course, the nation must simultaneously ramp up efforts to contain Covid on a global basis, or risk Permanent Covid resulting from the spread of variants rising in low-vaccination countries.
There is no mystery about where the opposition to vaccination in the United States is concentrated: all you have to do is look at the most current data on Covid cases. The American South represents 34% of the U.S. population, but a whopping 56% of the weekly Covid cases. Sure, look at the vaccination rates by states, too – as we did in a recent post – as you will see that all the Southern states lag the U.S. average in vaccination.
% Weekly Cases % Pop % Case/ Pop
West 20 24 86
Midwest 14 22 65
South 56 34 162
Northeast 9 19 48
Pick the data apart further, and you find a literally sickening statistic. Simply rank, top to bottom, the percentage of weekly Covid cases in the states that have a higher percentage of Covid cases than percentage of population. You see a national x-ray revealing the deep dark splotches of metastasized rejection of science. You see the Deep South.
% Weekly Cases % Pop % Case/ Pop
Florida 18.1 6.5 278
Texas 9.9 8.7 114
Georgia 3.9 3.2 122
Tennessee 3.7 2.1 176
North Carolina 3.5 3.2 109
Louisiana 3.1 1.4 221
Alabama 3.0 1.5 200
Mississippi 2.9 0.9 322
Arizona 2.3 2.2 105
South Carolina 2.2 1.6 138
Oklahoma 1.8 1.2 150
You would think, of course – and hope and pray, while you are at it – that those states are doing everything in their power to control the killing wave that is surging through their populations.
They are not. They are doing pretty much the opposite.
The governors of Florida and Texas are waging war against mask mandates, haughtily dismissing the notion that an individual local school board has the right to implement a mask mandate as a means of mitigating transmission risk in their local school system.
Read the full text of DeSantis’s July 30 “Executive Order Ensuring Parents’ Freedom To Choose,” which contains these justifications for banning any school district from implementing a mask mandate:
“WHEREAS, masking children may lead to negative health and societal ramifications; and, WHEREAS, studies have shown that children are at a low risk of contracting a serious illness due to COVID-19 and do not play a significant role in the spread of the virus; and WHEREAS, forcing children to wear masks could inhibit breathing, lead to the collection of dangerous impurities including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants, and adversely affect communications in the classroom and student performance…”
This proclamation would seem to place DeSantis at the head of an odd “virus freedom” movement designed to ensure the right of the coronavirus is spread as widely and rapidly as possible, unfettered by government or scientific interference. Nowhere to be found in the Executive Order is a “WHEREAS” that mentions that children can and very much do get infected with this deadly virus, can and do bring it home, and can and do spread it to parents, grandparents, and adults who with compromised health conditions. On Friday, DeSantis upped the ante, pushing a plan to actually withhold state educational funds from municipalities that implemented mask mandates in their local schools.
Further evidencing his perversely political view of his own state’s precarious Covid situation, DeSantis recently directed this decidedly weird equivalency at Joe Biden:
“Why don’t you do your job, why don’t you get this border secure and until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you,” the governor fired at Biden on August 3. What was his point? That immigration is a greater crisis than a pandemic that has killed over 600,000 Americans? Or – huh? -- that immigration was causing the rampant spread of Covid in Florida? Perhaps Ron DeSantis has access to Donald Trump’s map-altering Sharpie, but Florida is bordered by two U.S. States, an ocean, and a gulf of denial. Immigration – illegal or not – is not the explanation for why Florida has 18% of our nation’s Covid cases but only 6.5% of the population.
In a monument to hypocrisy, DeSantis appeared unaware that at the exact time he was declaring that he “did not want to hear a blip about COVID” from Biden, his own state had requested 200 ventilators from the Federal government. It’s fun to watch the video of DeSantis as he is first made aware of this fact by a reporter. DeSantis bears more than a casual physical resemblance to Fred Flintstone, and his hubada hubada response to the reporter’s question really makes you wonder if Florida is led by the patriarch of a modern stone age family.
Then there is the hypocrisy of DeSantis vigorously arguing that Federal policy and guidelines are not relevant or even welcome given some assertion of the unique conditions in Florida, while simultaneously issuing state edicts commanding that local municipalities have no right to determine their own local policies. Centralized policy and practice is apparently only ok if it is centralized under DeSantis’s command.
Hey, Ron, fine -- maybe all municipalities in Florida should be governed by a single policy on masking… you picked the wrong one! State policy should be to allow every municipality to institute a mask mandate if they believe that their local hospital ICUs are at the breaking point.
Why, you ask, are the governors of Texas and Florida using their bully pulpits to bully doctors and scientists rather that fight a raging pandemic?
Sadly, it is becoming clear that Permanent Covid is very good politics for Republicans, who apparently see a lot of upside to a raging pandemic that preys most upon the poorest among us. It happens that the governors of Texas and Florida are two hyper-ambitious politicians who are eying 2024 and know that the path to the Republican nomination passes directly through Trump’s base. Permanent Covid is one key to successfully navigating that path.
There are five reasons why the Republican Party may believe that it benefits from the continuation of a horrendous pandemic that could be beaten if the Republicans actually wanted to.
1. Simply put, a permanent pandemic is bad for Joe Biden… and therefore good for Republicans.
In Joe Biden’s first six months in office, he was able to gear up production and distribution of the Covid vaccines far more rapidly than anyone had expected. As the nation rapidly signed up and lined up for the vaccines, Biden’s approval ratings were strong… particularly relative to Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Biden now refers to Covid 19 as the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” which is essentially labeling it the “pandemic of the Red States.” But it doesn’t matter if Republicans are largely responsible for protracting the pandemic…the failure to end the pandemic will have happened on Biden’s watch.
So Republicans may be making a simple calculation: the longer the pandemic rages, the more trouble it causes for Biden… the better the Republican chances in the mid-terms and in 2024.
2. The Delta variant will seriously erode economic recovery.
This is simply the economic implication of point #1. The upside is obvious: the more we eradicate Covid, the more the economy will roar back to life. A vital economy makes Joe Biden look good. The Republicans watched as the economy took off in the first months of the Biden administration, as businesses and investors throttled up in anticipation of a return to normalcy.
Republicans know that the health of the economy almost always is the most important factor voters use when casting ballots. Republicans can’t let Biden have a vibrant economy if they want to take back Congress and the White House.
So the health of the economy is another good reason for Republicans to fight masking and vaccine mandates… the more Delta roars, the worse the economy fares, and the harder it becomes for Democrats to retain Congress and the White House.
Moreover, it doesn’t take much to predict how the Republicans play this particular game of “heads I win, tails, you lose.” Just watch DeSantis in the coming months. If the economic recovery stalls, he will blame Biden and the Federal government's Covid restrictions -- not the virus itself -- as the reason for economic malaise.
Of course, if the economy remains in an upward trajectory, he
will ascribe success to the policies of Southern governors who removed all the
Covid restrictions on the theory that their economies would thrive.
3. Donald Trump has actually found a way to link Permanent Covid to the “Big Lie,” and support his assertion that Joe Biden’s Presidency is not legitimate.
Just weeks ago, on July 18, Trump declared that “Joe Biden kept talking about how good of a job he's doing on the distribution of the vaccine that was developed by Operation Warp Speed or, quite simply, the Trump Administration. He's not doing well at all. He's way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the vaccine because they don't trust his administration, they don't trust the election results, and they certainly don't trust the fake news, which is refusing to tell the truth."
Wow. According to Trump, the low rate of vaccination in the South is somehow further "proof" that the election was rigged. With this mind-blowing assertion, Trump can support three different politically advantageous narratives at once: (1) he grabs all the credit for developing the vaccine, (2) he claims that the failure of Southerners to take the vaccine is because they don’t believe Biden is the legitimate President of the United States, (3) he therefore can blame Permanent Covid on Biden.
Trump has been trying to play both sides of the vaccine war for a year, taking full credit for its development, while and now offering this looney explanation to justify the behavior of the anti-vaxxers in his base. His double talk is wearing thin: on Saturday, August 23, Trump urged the crowd at an Alabama rally to “take the vaccines,” and he was booed. That embarrassing video careened around the internet for a news cycle. Think Trump will ever again encourage his supporters to get vaccinated? He'd rather stick with permanent Covid than risk another humiliation like that.
4. Republicans care more about their messaging than about the health of their own voters.
Some readers will say that the thesis of this article is flawed, as intentionally protracting Covid in Red States would inevitably lead to more disease and death among Republicans than Democrats, right? Indeed, in private conversations, one hears a disbelieving, stunned amazement – “don’t these Republican governors realize that they are killing their own voters? Won’t Southerners realize that their governors are recklessly creating circumstances that will lead to the needless deaths of their daughters, sons, moms, dads, grandparents, and young children?”
Who would do that?
Well, Ron DeSantis would. Think about it.
I suspect that Ron DeSantis thinks that the decline in the number of Republican voters due to Covid deaths is not going to make as big a difference in the outcome of most elections in the South… and certainly not as much impact as his spirited anti-Washington, anti-Biden, antebellum rhetoric will help his cause.
But we actually needn’t go there. DeSantis is hedging his bets. He steered Covid vaccines to his rich Republican buddies, creating a distribution strategy for the vaccines that made it more rapidly available and accessible to his Republican donors than to poorer sections of Florida that would lean Democratic. DeSantis was accused of setting up “pop up vaccination sites” in retirement communities that housed the donor class, essentially directing then-limited vaccine supplies to the well-to-do whites that he counts on for contributions.
So DeSantis is making sure that his Republican cronies get the vaccine first… and then attempts to shut down masking mandates intended to protect the less fortunate citizens.
5. By far the most important: in the coronavirus pandemic, the Republicans have found the perfect vessel for the ultimate culture war.
What we witness today in the “Covid-19 culture wars” are simply wildly different – and in some cases, dangerously foolish -- definitions of “freedom.”
Southern Republicans have somehow come to believe that the “freedom” they are guaranteed in the Constitution is freedom from government. Somehow, they have accomplished the pretzel of logic that the very government to which they pledge allegiance is promising them freedom from any limit to that freedom imposed by that very government.
Yes, our Constitution has a Bill of Rights, which secures important individual protections from interference by government. But to hear the braying south of the Mason Dixon line today, you’d think that the only purpose of the Constitution is to allow individuals to do whatever they damn please. Somehow, southerners have come to believe that it is their inalienable right to freely exhale a deadly virus into the faces of fellow citizens, and think that a requirement to wear a mask to reduce the risk of such a transmission is a violation of their freedom.
This view of freedom – now championed by the governor of Florida -- is a shallow, sophomoric, and immature definition.
A broader and more measured grasp of “freedom” is to realize that the freedoms in our Constitution are not merely preservation of individual rights from government, but our obligation as citizens to preserve the collective freedom of self-government. We are defending our nation from its enemies, foreign and domestic, who would steal that freedom.
In contrast to the Southern Republican definition of freedom, Democrats seem to understand that we occasionally must accept that our individual freedoms are curtailed for the common good. Yes, the government is allowed to curtail individual freedom for the good of the society. You are not allowed to go to a bar, get sloppy drunk, run your car into the other lane and kill a pregnant woman and her baby. Want your kid to go to school? Yes, there are required vaccines. Is Adolf Hitler threatening to attack New York City? Yep, the U.S. government is going to put a gun in your hand and tell you to kill people.
Now please... tell me again about your belief that your government has no right to curtail your individual freedom in order to achieve a greater good and protect our collective freedom?
The government isn’t always right. Hey, if you didn’t agree with the war in Vietnam, you didn’t have to fight in it. You could try to secure a “conscientious objector” deferment, you could make a stand for civil disobedience and opt for jail time rather than military service, or you could – as many young men did – leave the country and seek asylum in Canada.
But you don’t get to say, “I want to enjoy all the benefits of citizenship in the United States of America but I don’t accept the requirements of that citizenship.”
Fortunately for Ron DeSantis, Republicans in the South don’t seem to think that hard, and prefer the sophomoric notion that freedom is just another word for nothing you must lose. Down South, freedom means my kid can bring his asymptomatic Covid-19 into your kid’s classroom, infect you, the teacher’s aging parent, and maybe even kill the neighbor’s ten-year-old as part of the package.
It’s horrendous, but boy oh boy, does Covid-19 provide the Republicans with Red State red meat talking points.
Being required by the government to take a vaccine? The government forcing my kid to wear a mask? The government trying to tell me that I must stand six feet away from the lady in front of me in the line at CVS? Who the hell do these crazy radical commies think they are?
If this nation were to get the coronavirus under control,
the Republicans would lose one of the most important and emotional culture war
talking points they have in their arsenal. And if the coronavirus were to be tamed by a Democratic administration, that would be an electoral disaster.
Ron DeSantis wants to run for President in 2024, and he needs Donald Trump’s base to accomplish that. So fighting the culture war is far, far, far more important to him than dealing with the fact that Florida has 18% of our nation’s Covid cases but only 6.5% of the population.
And, yeah… that does mean that Florida will have three times the death rate as the rest of the country just so that Ron can preserve his talking points.
Some people will read this post and accuse me of an incalculable cynicism, accusing me of implying that Republicans allow Americans to die needlessly in order to achieve political objectives.
I most certainly am not implying that.
I am saying that, out loud, unambiguously, and emphatically.
That is exactly what Donald Trump did in his final year of the Presidency.
Donald Trump pretended that the virus was not
dangerous, would magically disappear, and could be treated at home by ingesting
bleach, all so that Americans would not listen to the scientists and doctors
who were urging lockdowns, masks, and social distancing. Trump was desperately
hoping that by minimizing the pandemic, there would be less disruption to the
economy, which he viewed to be the key to his re-election.The result? Hundreds of thousands of Americans died needlessly, all sacrificed by Trump to better his chances of re-election.
Yes, I am accusing Republicans – then Trump, now DeSantis and Abbott -- of allowing Americans to die needlessly in order to achieve personal political objectives.
I am not the cynic here. The unfathomable cynic in this story is Ron DeSantis. You see, he is far from a stupid person. Tough-talking man-of-the-people Ron DeSantis went to Yale undergrad and Harvard Law. He knows full well the true meaning of “freedom” in a democracy, but he is shamelessly parroting the dumbed down, sophomoric, and utterly selfish notion that “freedom” means “freedom from government” so that he can stroke Trump’s base into a lather.
Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are just acting on Trump’s playbook.
The truth is that America is not fighting the coronavirus. We are fighting over it. The Republicans know that we could wrangle it to submission in months if we achieved national vaccination rates in the 75% range, and adhered to sensible masking and social distancing until vaccination rates are achieved and herd immunity is realized.
And then, yes, we would then have to turn our attention to helping the world’s nearly 8 billion people achieve the same level of safety and protection. In a nation -- and a world -- of bigotry, prejudice, and tribalism, the coronavirus alone seems to truly see no differences between all human beings. Preventing Permanent Covid in the United States is just a small step toward fending off Global Permanent Covid.
But good luck even achieving herd immunity simply in the United States if it is not really what Republicans want.
And that, friends, is one too many ironies in the fire.
You see, the only reason that Republicans claim to believe in “freedom from government” is so they can get back in control of it.
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