August 8, 2021 (Sunday)

Pundits Continue to Stoke Vaccine Paranoia

August 8, 2021 (Sunday)

On the heels of yesterday’s testimony by former acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen before the Senate Judiciary Committee, former president Trump hit the Fox News Channel to try to turn the conversation back to an attack on President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus.

“Could you imagine if I were president right now and we had this massive attack from the coronavirus?” he asked host Dan Bongino. “If that were me, they would say, ‘What a horrible thing, what a horrible job.’ And I don’t ever hear that.” Of course, we did have just such an attack on his watch. The pandemic Biden is trying to end began during Trump’s term, when more than 400,000 people died.

But there is something more at stake here than Trump’s vanity. This attempt to rewrite the history of the coronavirus pandemic illuminates the urgency of the fight for our democracy.

The reason that Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson’s broadcasts last week from Hungary were so shocking was that his praise of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s policies, which have dramatically eroded Hungarian democracy, threw into the open the Republican Party’s embrace of authoritarianism.

Orbán’s own swing toward authoritarianism came after he whipped up supporters with attacks on immigrants in the surge of migrants coming through Serbia into Hungary in 2015. He ordered a wall built on the Hungary-Serbia border and sent the bill to Brussels, saying the European Union should pay for Hungary’s efforts to protect Europe from the illegal migrants. Since then, migration to—and through—Hungary has plummeted while only about 2 people a day ask for asylum. The country does not have a particularly high percentage of immigrants—only about 5% of the population was born elsewhere—but Orbán continues to stoke anti-immigrant fires, convincing his supporters that they are constantly under siege. Now dominated by Orbán’s government, the media hypes his accusations.

Trump announced his presidential run in 2015 with an attack on immigrants, of course, and that anti-immigrant stance ran through his administration. Last week, Carlson expressed admiration for Orbán’s attack on immigration, but that attack on immigration is far more central to our current political situation than it immediately appears.

When President Joe Biden took office, his top priority was to get Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus, which was devastating the country. He refused to criticize how Republican governors had handled the crisis with the idea that this would be an issue around which Americans could unite, and that unity might then help us get beyond the polarization that has paralyzed us for so long.

In response, Republican pundits, especially those on the Fox News Channel, undermined support for the vaccine. Right-wing accounts on social media warned people the vaccine was dangerous and said that Covid-19 was a hoax, or almost certainly survivable. Trump supporters became one of the populations that were reluctant to get vaccinated. We are now facing a new, very contagious variant—the Delta variant—which appears to be more dangerous even than the original virus and which is infecting children more effectively than the original did. National infection numbers are around 100,000 a day, about the same rate we were suffering in February, before the vaccine was widely available.

Republican-led states have been hit the hardest. Last week, Florida and Texas alone made up one out of every three new cases, and now Florida is the center of the pandemic. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 23,903 new cases in Florida that day alone. Hospitals are filling up as unvaccinated Americans need medical care; Austin, Texas, activated an emergency alert this weekend as its hospitals were overwhelmed.

But Republican lawmakers stand against the mask requirements and vaccines that would help stop the spread. Texas governor Greg Abbott has banned mask and vaccine mandates across the state, as has Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson (who has since said the law was an “error”). South Carolina and Arizona have banned mask mandates in schools.

Today, in just the latest example, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said, “It’s time for us to resist. They can’t arrest all of us…. No one should follow the CDC.” He claimed that masking and remote learning was physically and emotionally damaging for children, and there was no reason they should not return to school full time, without masks. He said he would work to defund any school or government agency or school that did not simply resume its pre-pandemic operations.

Instead of trying to stop the spread of the virus, Republicans are blaming Biden for it. They claim that it is sparked by his handling of immigration on our southern border and that infected immigrants are responsible for the spike in the deadly disease.

When Biden asked Republican governors on August 3 to help or get out of the way, Florida governor Ron DeSantis responded: “Joe Biden has the nerve to tell me to get out of the way on COVID while he lets COVID-infected migrants pour over our southern border by the hundreds of thousands. No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies,” and claimed: “He’s imported more virus from around the world by having a wide-open southern border.”

DeSantis is not an outlier. Trump has pushed this line, Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity hammers on it, and right-wing publications from the Daily Wire to National Review to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page all insist that immigrants are to blame for the spread of the virus. Rand Paul has gone so far as to claim that administration officials are deliberately sending infected immigrant children around the country to spread the variant. Yesterday, Trump legal adviser Jenna Ellis called for Biden’s impeachment over the issue.

In fact, the administration continues to reject or expel border crossers under a public health order known as Title 42. It does permit the entry of unaccompanied minors and some vulnerable families. Migrants who cross the border are immediately required to wear masks. They are not tested at Customs and Border Patrol unless they show symptoms, but all are tested if they move into the system, and those who test positive for coronavirus are quarantined. Those slated for deportation are quarantined before they are deported. While infection rates are climbing, because of both the Delta variant and the crowding at Border Patrol, immigrants test positive at a lower rate than the rate of non-immigrants around them.

And yet, Republicans are using the deadly new coronavirus variant to stoke anti-immigrant fires.

It is cynical, it is deadly… and it takes us one more step toward authoritarianism.


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