The viral lies that keep killing us

So why didn’t we get past the pandemic? Part
of the problem has been the creativity of viral evolution. The delta variant
shocked us with its lethality; now omicron is shocking us with its
transmissibility. Still, we could and should have done far better. And the main
reason we didn’t was the power of politically motivated lies.

Before I get to the specifics of those lies
and the damage they’ve done, let’s be clear: Yes, this is about politics.

I know I’m not the only commentator who has
faced a lot of pushback against emphasising the partisan nature of vaccine
resistance. We’re constantly reminded that many unvaccinated Americans aren’t
Republican loyalists, that there are multiple reasons people won’t get or at
least haven’t gotten their shots. All this is true; but politics has
nonetheless played a crucial — and growing — role.

Look, for example, at a KFF survey from
October, which found that 60% of the unvaccinated identified as Republicans,
compared with only 17% who identified as Democrats. Or look at the invaluable
Charles Gaba’s analysis of county-level data, which finds that on average a 1
percentage point higher Trump share of the 2020 vote corresponds to about a
half-point reduction in a county’s current vaccination rate.

But how did politics do so much to undermine
what should have been a medical miracle? I’d identify three important lies that
keep being repeated by Republican politicians and right-wing media.

First is the claim that the coronavirus is no
big deal. You might think this claim would have been retired, given that more
than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID since Rush Limbaugh compared its
virus to the common cold.

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But it’s still out there. Political figures
like Marco Rubio are dismissing the response to omicron as “irrational
hysteria” because the variant appears to cause relatively few hospitalisations
among the fully vaccinated. He slips quickly past that last qualification,
which the KFF survey suggests has eluded millions of unvaccinated Republicans,
who declare themselves unworried by a disease that should have them very
worried indeed.

And conservative commentators erupted in rage
when President Joe Biden pointed out, reasonably, that the coronavirus is still
extremely dangerous if you haven’t gotten your shots; Tucker Carlson accused
Biden of treating the unvaccinated as “subhumans.”

Next up: the claim that vaccination is ineffective.
“If the booster shots work, why don’t they work?” tweeted Republicans on the
House Judiciary Committee.

What they were getting at, presumably, is the
fact that omicron is producing a number of breakthrough infections, while
carefully ignoring the overwhelming evidence that even when vaccinated
Americans do get infected they are far less likely than the unvaccinated to be
hospitalised — or die.

Finally, there’s the claim that it’s all about
freedom, that remaining unvaccinated should be treated simply as a personal
choice. For example, the administration of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has used
that argument as the basis for a lawsuit seeking to block federal vaccine
mandates. The Abbott administration has also appealed for federal aid to help
Texas — which has a strikingly low vaccination rate in part because Abbott has
prevented private businesses from imposing vaccine requirements — cope with a
surge in COVID cases and hospitalisations. Need we say more?

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Alert readers will have noticed that these Republican
claims, in addition to being false, contradict one another in multiple ways. We
can ignore COVID thanks to vaccines, which by the way don’t work. Vaccination
is a personal choice, but giving people the information they need to make that
choice wisely is a vile attack on their dignity. It’s all about freedom and
free markets, but this freedom doesn’t include the right of private businesses
to protect their own workers and customers.

So none of this makes any sense — not, that
is, unless you realise that Republican vaccine obstructionism isn’t about
serving a coherent ideology, it was and is about the pursuit of power. A
successful vaccination campaign would have been a win for the Biden
administration, so it had to be undermined using any and every argument

Sure enough, the anti-vaccine strategy has
worked politically. The persistence of COVID has helped keep the nation’s mood
dark, which inevitably hurts the party that holds the White House — so
Republicans who have done all they can to prevent an effective response to
COVID have not hesitated, even for a moment, in blaming Biden for failing to
end the pandemic.

And the success of destructive vaccine
politics is itself deeply horrifying. It seems that utter cynicism, pursued
even at the cost of your supporters’ lives, pays.

©2021 The New York Times Company

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