Opinion by Michael Gerson
It is the sign of a sickness deeper than covid-19 that the defiance of public health guidance has become a political selling point in the Republican Party.
Consider the case of South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem. Speaking last month to the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, she stirred some presidential buzz for her proud resistance to basic virus control measures even at the height of the pandemic. “Now let me be clear, covid didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy,” Noem told the conference. “South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter in place order. We never mandated that people wear masks.”
Noem continued: “We have to show people how arbitrary these restrictions are, and the coercion, the force and the anti-liberty steps that government takes to enforce them.”
Now let me be clear. South Dakota has the second-highest case rate and the eighth-highest covid death rate in the country. In that sparsely populated state, the disease has taken the lives of nearly 2,000 people. And Noem’s defiant inaction has made that number higher than it should have been. What level of hubris, extremism or insanity does it take to crow about one of the worst covid records in the nation? Noem might as well be campaigning for higher office in a hearse.
In the not-so-distant past, Republican governors competed with their colleagues to author innovative welfare reform or criminal justice proposals. Now bad covid policy is a point of pride and a path to influence. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has made his better-than-Noem-but-still-middling covid record the centerpiece of his national appeal. He also bucked the medical experts — making Florida “an oasis of freedom” — but held his per capita death rate to 28th in the nation. It makes for a nice campaign slogan: “DeSantis, Not As Disastrous As You Initially Thought.”
Amid its many horrors, covid has presented a rare opportunity. On one large national problem, it has allowed for an empirical test of political philosophies. Under President Donald Trump, the federal government largely surrendered its role in the unfolding crisis, leaving both red and blue states to respond according to their ideological proclivities. Republican governors were less likely to implement stay-at-home orders, and, if they did, those orders tended to be of shorter length. Democrat-led states were more likely to impose mask mandates.
A recent study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Medical University of South Carolina — analyzing every day of data between March 15, 2020, and Dec. 12, 2020 — calculated the chances of getting covid-19 or dying from covid-19 in every state (and D.C.). After adjusting for factors such a population density, ethnic composition, poverty and age, a clear picture emerged. Democrat-led states were hardest hit early on, as you’d expect given the places where the disease took hold in the United States. But then the balance shifted. By June 3, Republican states had higher case diagnoses. By July 4, higher death rates. By Aug. 5, the relative risk of dying from covid-19 was 1.8 times higher in GOP-led states.
And we know the differences on covid policy that intensified during those nine months. Republican-led states (with exceptions such as Maryland and Massachusetts) pulled back from pandemic-related measures. “In late spring,” one health official told me, “when we were trying to carefully ‘reopen’ the country and the economy by putting out a set of gateway guidelines for the states to follow, states like Florida, Texas and Georgia, among others, essentially disregarded the guidelines. To a greater or lesser degree they opened up too quickly leading to that late spring, early summer surge that we experienced.”
All pandemic policy involves a trade-off between the level of deaths and the level of commercial interaction. But concerning covid, Republican governors tended to put a greater value on economic activity than preserving the lives of the elderly and vulnerable (and others) when compared with Democrat-led states. In doing so, they elevated their views above the sober judgment of experts.
How is this performance by many Republican governors not discrediting, even disqualifying? Does it not concern people in GOP-led states that, at a key moment in the crisis, they were nearly twice as likely to die of covid than their counterparts in Democrat-led states? Why does it not generate more outrage that many Republican governors are continuing these policies even as infections spread and virus mutations accumulate?
Realistically, this is because the economic benefits of covid irresponsibility are immediate and obvious to everyone. And even twice a very small risk is still a very small risk. But this reasoning requires us to abandon our social solidarity with the elderly and vulnerable, who bear a disproportionate cost in Noem’s vision of liberty. And I fear it indicates a wide streak of social Darwinian callousness in the American right.