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    Monday, March 20, 2023

    Conservative politicization of the pandemic

    This appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    With light apparently at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, this is a good time to soberly assess how America handled the pandemic and can better handle whatever new wave might come. A new study shows that what the nation should not do again is listen to anti-science extremists — including elected ones. The study charts a clear pattern of higher coronavirus death rates in Republican-controlled states where political leaders refused aggressive pandemic policies.

    In GOP-dominated Missouri, where the governor publicly downplayed masking and the state attorney general sued to prevent schools from enforcing pandemic restrictions, the coronavirus death rate was 20% higher than the rate next door in Democratic-controlled Illinois. Here and around America, the GOP’s cynical insistence on making pandemic policy into a culture-war issue instead of a medical one has, literally, cost lives.

    For all the fraught political controversy surrounding the pandemic, the medical facts have been remarkably straightforward. The vaccines that became widely available early last year have been stunningly effective at preventing the disease or blunting its severity in those who are vaccinated — to the point that, by the most recent round of illnesses to inundate hospitals, this had become almost entirely a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

    The efficacy of masks has never faced a serious challenge from science, only from political opportunists like Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Missourians will never know how many illnesses were attributable to Schmitt’s Senate-campaign-driven attacks on school mask policies, but it’s not medically conceivable that number was zero. Similarly, they will never know how many of Gov. Mike Parson’s constituents got sick after adopting his dismissive attitude toward wearing “a dang mask.” Though they do know that he was one of them.

    Elections have consequences, and one consequence of electing Republican officials here and around America who were willing to side against science in their efforts to pander to their anti-science base has been unnecessarily high coronavirus death rates in red-state America. That’s the inescapable conclusion of a study by consultant Doug Haddix, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The resulting map of comparisons between deaths per 100,000 residents in each state looks eerily like a red-blue political map of the country.

    There’s Missouri, with 113 deaths per 100,000, while neighboring Illinois had just 90. There’s deep-red Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has made attacks on responsible pandemic policies a centerpiece of his likely presidential run, logging in with 152 deaths per 100,000. As for New York and California, those twin liberal boogeymen of the political right: 70 and 58 deaths per 100,000, respectively.

    This won’t be America’s last pandemic. But with data like this in hand, it should be the last in which people who care more about politics than public health are allowed to hold sway.

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