The most perplexing aspect of the pandemic is its partisan nature. The shutdown should have been a time when we bonded over our collective misery and came together for the common good. That was, in fact, the case for about six weeks before some right-wingers became enraged at their inability to go to Arby’s and began plotting gubernatorial assassinations and the storming of capitols as a result.
Again, this left me baffled. Since a virus has no concern with its host’s political leanings, the pandemic should have been the ultimate nonpartisan issue. Instead, a nation already divided by a petulant child masquerading as a head of state become even more fractured. It has gotten so wacky lately that talk show host Dennis Prager insisted that anyone who wears a mask outdoors would have been a willing Nazi accomplice. Vaccination clinics today, Auschwitz tomorrow. Logical leap.
In a parallel development, the anti-vax movement that was once part of the burned-out hippie fringe has now completed a bewildering transformation to mainstream conservative thought. While the great majority of Republican federal lawmakers, governors, and Fox News blathering heads have received the COVID vaccine, they caution their followers against doing the same.
To be sure, describing the anti-vax movement as having shifted from Jenny McCarthy’s terrain to Tucker Carlson’s is a bit simplistic. There here have always been anti-vaxxers of varying political stripes. This included libertarians whose belief in limited government was so extreme they felt it should take no action to prevent the spread of disease, no matter how deadly. And there were Republicans who, having bought into the rugged individual American myth, preferred to go it on their own, or at least thought that’s what they were doing. A motorcycling free rider who eschews helmet usage boasts he’s doing it all on his own, without thinking about how the highway got there or how his bike got manufactured. Similarly, some feel they are going their own way on vaccines without realizing that others getting immunized brought anti-vaxxers the herd immunity they are enjoying. Now let’s look at how much worse it has gotten.
A huge factor was a 2015 California law passed in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak. This eliminated nonmedical school vaccination requirements. During the bill’s debate, right-wing lawmakers, while having gotten jabbed themselves, learned the political gain of employing buzzwords like freedom, choice, religious liberty, and parental rights.
From that groundswell, we now have objection from nearly all elected Republicans to any COVID control measures. For these politicians, mounting deaths and the overwhelming of the medical system pale in importance to getting reelected. China, where the virus originated and with four times the U.S. population, has yet to hit 5,000 coronavirus-related deaths. Meanwhile, the “pro-life” party leads resistance to vaccines, masks, testing, tracing, and distancing, as the number of U.S. COVID deaths approaches 700,000.
This wasn’t always the case. Mississippi has long required schoolchildren to be vaccinated against nine diseases and allowed no religious exceptions.
Today, that mindset has been brushed aside in favor of gaining political capital and getting one over on those silly pro-science liberals and skeptics. Many elected Republicans such as Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Marjorie Taylor Green, Mo Brookes, and Josh Hawley have dispensed with the pro-freedom façade and now openly embrace opposition to vaccine science.
Still, there are still some who may frame their opposition as one of choice. Two years ago, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey fought an attempt to broaden school vaccination exemptions. But this year he forbid local governments from requiring COVID vaccines for employees, calling the type of initiative he had championed in 2019 to now be “dictatorial.”
It’s reminiscent of Gov. Orval Faubus fighting to keep Little Rock Central segregated. His motivations were based more on political expediency than a personal bigotry. But history rightly reviles Faubus for his stance, regardless of why he took it. The same fate awaits those who today are embracing the more repugnant options available during the pandemic.