Recently, we all saw Alyson McClaran’s iconic photograph of a nurse in Colorado standing vigilant against individuals in a pickup truck protesting the state’s social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
It was the ultimate visualization of similar situations around the country, as small but vocal crowds gathered at city capitols and hospitals to protest business, school, and public park closings. On the other side, healthcare experts insist that so-called “quarantine” measures are necessary: by isolating each other as much as possible, we can slow down the rate of contagion and spread out cases over a longer period of time, to prevent a spike or surge in cases that could overwhelm hospitals. Underscoring the experts’ conclusions on the matter are examples all over the world of hospitals running out of beds and equipment.
There are countless stories from our own country, too. The wealthiest nation in the world is facing shortages of basic medical supplies in many places, relying on average citizens to sew face masks and 3D print face shields and ventilator parts.
Why, in the midst of a crisis, are voices rising up against the very people trying to save lives? In just a few months, more Americans have died due to COVID-19 than in the entirety of the United State’s involvement in the Vietnam War. By the time I publish this article, that will be over 48,000 human lives snuffed out.
The problem is, there is much we still don’t know about the virus. Confusion abounds. Only recently is it becoming clear that the testing being done in the US is unreliable: The Wall Street Journal reports that 1/3 of the tests are false negatives; the New York Times reports that many tests are made in China without FDA approval, and/or are being administered improperly.
Testing is critical. We need to understand the scope of the problem. How infectious is the disease? Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who died because of the disease, versus other reasons? What treatments are working? What treatments are dangerous? We talk a lot about flattening the curve, but we don’t know the actual curve right now. It’s all models. Estimations. Certainly, a lot of very smart people are doing a lot of very solid work to come up with these models and projections… but their conclusions are only as accurate as the data they have access to. Crucially, we need reliable testing of a statistically significant portion of our population, and we need continued testing to understand the aftermath of the disease, as well. We can’t hope to make a well-informed, data-driven decision about how to come out of this crisis with the data we have now — we know so little!
And so some voices argue that COVID-19 isn’t actually a crisis; they compare it to a bad flu season (the 2018–2019 flu season killed 34,200 Americans, according to the CDC). Some voices argue that the curve’s been flattened enough, and we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns from social distancing. Some voices point to other countries’ different approaches and their varying levels of success. Some voices argue that “herd immunity,” is the only solution. Some voices even argue that it’s a conspiracy, formulated to make the Trump administration “look bad” for the 2020 election. These voices are loud, but rife with logical fallacies. I’d like to touch on those before I go on to last set of voices, the only set of voices that truly matter: the voices that argue they won’t be able to survive anyway, because they’re out of money and out of options unless the economy begins to turn around.
Comparing COVID-19 to the flu is a false equivalency. They’re different diseases, with significantly different rates of infection and mortality, and possibly even different vectors of transmission. Not to mention, 40% more Americans have already died due to COVID-19 than last year’s (particularly bad) flu season, and is still killing. Likewise, comparing COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu, or Ebola, or MERS is all a false equivalency. Realize that there are so many variables that factor into a global or national pandemic, that comparing two different diseases requires a cargo plane full of caveats and context that renders the argument moot at best. Our own CDC looks vastly different today than it did just 5 years ago!
Comparing the US’ response with Sweden and Israel is also popular, but just as disingenuous, for the same reason: other countries are simply very, very different. Sweden, for example, has a robust universal healthcare system; their citizens, on average, score much higher in various health indicators than US citizens, as a result. Their culture (and therefore behavior) is also very different, as is their population density. What works or doesn’t work in Sweden doesn’t necessarily translate well here in the US. We can’t look for a single anecdote that supports our confirmation biases and hold it up as an example of what to do or not do; we must look for statistically significant patterns and learn from those.
Herd Immunity used to be a phrase used to explain, in exasperation, to anti-vaxxers why its important to vaccinate as much of the population as possible to protect the whole of society against contagions. Is there any evidence that herd immunity applies to COVID-19? Is there any evidence that COVID-19 survivors are immune from the disease, or can’t continue to transmit the disease? Nothing conclusive. Hell, various agencies can’t agree on whether or not felines are capable of contracting and spreading the virus. Herd Immunity, in the context of COVID-19, is just a dog whistle for “I’m Ok With Other People Dying Off So We Can Get This Over With.” It’s a baseless theory in this case being pushed by right-wing bloggers (The Federalist goes so far as to suggest “voluntary infection,” though I refuse to link to arguments for negligent manslaughter here.) Any licensed doctor will tell you: Herd Immunity is a concept requiring a reliable vaccine implemented across a significant majority of a population.
As for the conspiracy theories about killing 185,000 humans around the world for the sake of making the impeached and deeply unpopular president look bad… honestly. Get a grip. Occam’s Razor would make clear right away that the simplest interpretation of events — that Trump happens to be president at a time in which a viral epidemic is sweeping the world — is correct.
These voices exist and will continue to persist. There’s a Reddit thread which thoroughly details the astroturfing efforts that resulted in these voices coming out — coinciding with the president tweeting out inflammatory things like “Liberate Michigan” to rile up his base as if the people were oppressed and occupied by some kind of draconian adversary. Between Russian misinformation campaigns, Fox News, the NRA, and countless other right-wing propaganda efforts, it’s difficult to escape the bubble of doubt and fear they’ve spent decades building. Their viewers are trained to trust only the talking heads on their favorite programs — not professors or doctors or scientists or other experts. They’re being led on in something they don’t understand, against their own interests, and all it takes is a tiny flake of truth at the core to maintain their vigilant obedience. Why were so many protesters armed to the teeth? Because gun rights advocates were the target audience. Guns had nothing to do with quarantining or COVID-19; neither have they any place at a peaceful protest. They weren’t really protests. They were shows of force. And let’s be real, with the kind of extremist right-wing yahoos showing up in their finest airsoft attire and MAGA hats: They don’t want the country to open up so they can go back to work. They want the country to open up so YOU can go back to WORK for them, serving them fries and washing their cars.
Buried in all this though, are real people, with real reasons to protest. They’ve lost their jobs and their businesses. They live paycheck to paycheck and are struggling to feed their families and afford medicine. They have nothing left, and they blame the local governments — governors, mayors, county judges — issuing the various shutdowns and social distancing measures.
Their life-and-death struggle is far more immediate and apparent to them, because they are starving and suffering even if they are unaffected by a terrible disease. In fact, many of these people hail from rural areas, where viral transmission is low due to the vast difference in population density from the urban hotspots — and so from their point of view, this whole thing is blown way out of proportion.
What they don’t know is that social distancing is protecting them. They can’t see it, because nobody really seems to be getting sick in their world. All they do know is they had been living paycheck to paycheck before they were fired and the dollar store was cleaned out of bread and rice when they tried to buy food for the week.
But the virus, and local governments’ responses to it, aren’t the things responsible for their suffering.
The GOP is.
Which political party has continually fought against workers’ rights? Which political party didn’t want people to be covered by health insurance? Which political party has fought against raising the federal minimum wage to a livable wage? Which political party has fed the hungry maw of unfettered late-stage capitalism with a $1.5 trillion tax break to megacorporations and billionaires, instead of common folk? Which political party has routinely dismantled regulations every chance they get? Which political party has fought against workers’ rights to unionize? Which political party has stalled, among the 400-something bills from the House collecting dust on McConnell’s desk, measures to guarantee equal pay, and paid parental leave, and sick leave, and a host of other measures. Which political party has argued against clean drinking water as a human right? Which political party has dismantled the EPA and allowed our good earth to be polluted and pillaged? Which political party greedily set up shell corporations and required that all emergency medical equipment be requisitioned through those, to profit off of the crisis? Which political party rejected oversight and deliberately sent emergency relief funds through the PPP to big corporations, instead of the actual small businesses that needed it? Which political party has railed against — and succeeded sometimes in slashing significant portions of — social welfare?
The fact of the matter is, Conservatives created the dangerous climate in which the average American could not hope to survive in case of crisis. Without a livable wage, the average worker was forced to live paycheck to paycheck, unable to save money for an emergency. Without access to proper healthcare — whether due to lack of insurance or lack of privilege — the average worker is already at a disadvantage in terms of their general health. Without regulations, corporations have spent years and years investing their profits into buying back their own stocks rather than giving raises to their employees. When the stock market tanked, so too did those companies, and their employees had no buffer in the bank. And when it became clear that drastic social distancing measures were in order, and that we’d all have to suffer temporarily together, it was the GOP downplaying the crisis and then pushing discordant messaging — the result of which was a mixed obedience at best to quarantine measures. Half measures don’t help against explosive, exponential growth.
These people are very real, and their life and death struggle now is very real. Yet they were out there, too, among the other voices. They, too, wore MAGA hats, protested the quarantine efforts, screamed at nurses and doctors, snarled hospital traffic. They carried signs that read “All work is essential,” they claimed their rights were being trampled… all without recognizing that the GOP has been swallowing up their rights every time these people vote for them. They think their enemy is the mainstream media or the Democrats or China or the WHO or egghead elitist doctors.
They don’t know that the conservatives they’ve been supporting for years have been cutting their parachutes this whole time before the pandemic kicked them out of their plane.
And what they don’t know is killing them.