Saturday, August 15

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Politicizing People: American lives aren’t up for debate

<h6>White House | <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:President_Trump_Holds_a_News_Conference_on_the_Coronavirus.jpg" target="_self">Wikimedia Commons</a></h6>
White House | Wikimedia Commons

In times of crisis, we see who we really are. In the past few weeks, we have seen the best of our country on display as millions sacrifice to keep each other safe. College students have returned home to the extent they are able. Much of the workforce has similarly shifted online. Healthcare and emergency workers have risked their lives to care for those in need and to ensure our ability to stay safely at home.

But the pandemic has also amplified some of the darkest elements in our country. For years, politicians and media on the right have trafficked in xenophobia and misinformation. For many marginalized people who bear the brunt of conservative policies, the cynicism and hatred in right-wing politics have been a matter of life or death. Now more clearly than ever, we can see how the issues that plague our political ecosystem carry deadly consequences for everyone. Throughout the pandemic, many Republicans have placed profit above people, prioritizing economic possibility above the millions of lives at stake. 

The politicization of the pandemic caused a crisis that continues to spiral out of control.

COVID-19 does not care where you live, be it blue New York or red Florida. It makes no difference who you voted for in the last election. Whether you are a grandparent or a college student, you are vulnerable to the virus and you are capable of spreading it at an exponential rate, even if you don’t feel ill.

This means that combating the spread of coronavirus calls upon all of us to sacrifice our comforts and our freedoms to socially distance and stay home. For the most part, Americans have been willing to make these sacrifices. But they have done so in spite of the lies and actions by Republicans with the biggest platforms and loudest microphones.

Republican politicians and the media that supports them have repeatedly taken the opposite of the necessary actions. For days over spring break, Governor Ron DeSantis refused to close the beaches in Florida. This allowed crowds of college students to swarm the coast for spring break in flagrant disregard of the science and health experts imploring the need for social distancing. 

These students deservedly received criticism for their actions, but it is DeSantis’s responsibility to implement policies that prevent selfishness from endangering the broader community. He chose not to do so for a while, only issuing the order today, as cases in Florida exceed 5,000. DeSantis’s inaction harms not just Floridians — many of whom occupy particularly vulnerable positions due to age and incarceration — but also the communities across the country to which visitors have returned.

Similar malfeasance dominates Congress. What was the first thing that senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia did after hearing about the threat of coronavirus in classified briefings back in January? Not warn the American people and start preparations to stave off a deadly pandemic, but instead dump millions of dollars of stock each to protect themselves against an economic downturn — all while assuring the American people COVID-19 posed no threat.

Not all Republicans have acted this way, of course. Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, for example, have led admirably in this fight. But the dominant messages coming from the conservative movement have undermined the response. In the context of a pandemic, an effective response requires nationwide coordination. Those who seek to act in the public interest are limited by their dependence on others who do not share their goals.

Conservative media has far more influence in shaping people’s views than any one governor. Instead of using this power to accurately inform its viewers, Fox News has played down the urgency of coronavirus, calling it a liberal conspiracy to take down Trump and an illness no worse than the flu — even as its chief executive took measures to protect herself from the virus. The network put out weeks of misinformation, misleading the many Americans who turn to the channel for their news. 

Fox is not the only mouthpiece for such dangerous messaging; Twitter has suspended the accounts of Rudy Giuliani, a former adviser and current attorney to Trump, and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, for “violating the Twitter rules regarding COVID-19 misinformation.”

Most harmfully, the Trump administration’s xenophobia and lies have handicapped the country’s ability first to prepare, then to respond to the deadly virus. Despite receiving repeated intelligence briefings warning of the virus as it raged through countries around the world, the federal government did not adequately prepare for when it inevitably reached America. It didn’t use the Defense Production Act to compel companies to augment the supply of needed medical equipment like N95 masks and ventilators ahead of time, creating a dire situation in hospitals where such supplies are now desperately needed. A paramedic in New York City called the situation “a war zone.”

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Investigating the government’s response, the New York Times found that “the result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread. Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe.”

Even worse, Trump has politicized access to the supplies the federal government does have, punishing states whose governors he dislikes while rewarding the ones who praise him. While Florida has received two shipments of medical equipment with everything it requested, with a third on the way, states like Massachusetts and Colorado were sent fractions of what they needed.

Such discrepancies reflect Trump’s politicization of aid. 

Revealing his favoritism, Trump told the media, “I say, ‘Mike [Pence], don’t call the governor in Washington, you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.’ You know what I say, if they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In other words, if your governor doesn’t obey Trump — regardless of his lies and inaction — he does not care about what you need to stay safe.

Especially maliciously, Trump has used racist language such as calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” with real consequences for Asian Americans, who now face the “double threat”  of both the virus and physical and verbal attacks. A study found 650 racist acts reported by Asian Americans over the last week, reflecting a climate that leaves everyone from regular people to representatives and senators fearing for their safety.

Now, as the United States braces for the virus’s full impact, Trump continues to misinform the public — so much so that even Senator Sherrod Brown has joined the chorus of calls for news networks to stop airing his press conferences live. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the White House’s coronavirus task force, has described how difficult it is to counter the president’s lies.

Trump’s rhetoric has life or death consequences. Last week, a man died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate. His wife, herself in the ICU for the same reason, cited Trump’s unfounded recommendation of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus as their explanation for doing so. Meanwhile, patients who actually need hydroxychloroquine for other conditions cannot get it, as those who fear coronavirus rush to stock up themselves.

Even last week, as scientists repeat that the only way to change the trajectory of the pandemic is to persist with harsh measures like social distancing, and experts say the peak is still weeks away, Trump has expressed a desire to roll back such protocols and return the country to normal. He only extended social distancing yesterday, after saying last week that he wants to “have all the churches full” come Easter. These mixed signals undermine the seriousness of the pandemic, reinforcing the very complacency that led to this crisis in the first place. 

Trump’s conservative followers have even more explicitly constructed a false choice between restarting the economy at the expense of vulnerable people and letting the country sink into economic ruin while fighting the virus — and chose the economy over human life. 

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Fox host Tucker Carlson that “there are lots of grandparents out there” who would be willing to sacrifice their lives to keep the economy afloat. CEO of Conservative publication TheBlaze Glenn Beck said, “Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country.” When they say this, these figures are not really referring to their own willingness to die; they’re implying that everyone else ought to be as well, that economic potential justifies putting millions at greater risk.

Maybe most Republicans are not so explicit as to directly weigh the economy against people’s lives, but their actions and words communicate the same message to the American people: this pandemic isn’t so serious, and if you think it is because someone you know has fallen ill, be comforted by the supposed glory of their unnecessary and unwilling sacrifice.

The truth is, saving lives and saving the economy are complementary goals; we help the economy recover by containing coronavirus. Republicans’ unwillingness to frame it this way reveals their apathy for the most vulnerable in this country.

Coronavirus was not preventable, but the current crisis we see was. The virus was containable. Look at what South Korea and Germany have done. The federal government saw it coming, and chose not to respond. Many states like Ohio, California, and New York are doing all they can to stem the tide, but there is a limit on what they can do. Hard as he may try, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cannot turn 400 ventilators into the 30,000 his state needs. Doctors and nurses cannot make their dwindling supplies last indefinitely. Their — and our — success relies on nationwide coordination of resources, on federal catalyzation of the private sector, on people’s collective action.

As the virus spreads and the medical and economic crisis deepens, we must not forget how we got here. Remember every action taken and not taken. Remember every lie told, every truth covered up. Remember who said it was no big deal, remember who said it was not their problem. Remember who revealed which lives they care about. And remember who stepped up, who fought for others, who showed up while others cowed. This will be the defining moment of our lives. Remember how it happened.

Julia Chaffers is a sophomore from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at chaffers@princeton.edu.

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