Ignorance Gone Viral
Denial Doesn’t Limit Government, Beat Science, or Win Elections.
For about three or four weeks last year, America was cautiously united in our concern about the danger of COVID-19. It began in mid-March when corporate leaders began shutting down facilities, and asking their employees to stay home or wear masks. Soon local and state governments followed suit. As usual, private industry got the message first, and government caught up. And after decades of slumber, centuries-old statutes were enacted to curb the unknown virus.
Then something changed: people began to criticize the government’s reaction. Somewhere deep in the belly of the conservative mediaplex the political argument against public health, and a sustained campaign against medical science was birthed. The shutdown was apparently “communism” and masks became its symbol. I watched this change happen among my Facebook friends, and in local media. Then science became a false religion. Perpetual cynicism was necessary to qualify this hyperbolic reaction.
CONSERVATIVE SUSPICION IS HEALTHY
Conservatives are naturally suspicious of government. And there is good reason for this. It goes to the heart of what makes us conservative to begin with – government fails at most objectives. The State cannot fix human nature, and individual responsibility is the best change agent.
But this is different. Human nature has more to do with psychology than physiology, and individuality comes second to collective safety. Public health is a legitimate government function in urban America. Do you accept health departments keeping restaurants clean? 48 million Americans get food poisoning each year, and 3000 die. How much more important is infectious disease? Early US history shows city ordinances to fight cholera outbreaks and smallpox epidemics. For about 100 years, everything from shipping embargoes and homebound quarantines to actual lockdowns of travel in and out of cities, and even forced vaccinations were attempted to curb these monsters. Every decade saw a new epidemic:
In the 1702 smallpox outbreak of Quebec City, Canada, over 1/4 of the city died.
In 1721, over half of Boston was infected with smallpox, and nearly 9% of the entire city died from it.
In 1793, 10% of Philadelphia died from yellow fever. In response, New York City banned all travelers and shipments from Philadelphia for months. Eventually yellow fever claimed 8% of New Yorkers over the next five years.
New York City suffered a cholera outbreak in 1832 that claimed nearly 2% of the cities population in a matter of months, and sickened 1/4 of its residents.
Over 500 of the 10,000 residents in Nashville died in 1849-1850 due to a cholera outbreak. President Polk was one of them. 10,000 died of the same disease in New York City. 3,500 died in St Louis.
Chicago suffered a cholera outbreak in 1854, taking the lives of over 5% of the city.
In 1862, smallpox outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest killed roughly 2/3 of native Americans who lived in the area.
In September 1878, 6,000 out of 50,000 Memphis residents died in a yellow fever outbreak. 20,000 died across the south.
One thing that made all of these epidemics worse was the lack of public hygiene. Over time, health codes were developed to promote basic public health, and small offices or individual officers were brought on board to govern them. The first quarantine rules were developed by the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1647 for overseas shipments. The first actual public health board was established by Petersburg, Virginia in 1780. Larger cities like New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia followed suit in the next decade. By the mid-1800s governments were seeing sanitation removal, paved streets, and health standards for large businesses as the best ways to manage infectious disease. Inoculation and vaccination also became more common. In response to a 1902 smallpox outbreak in Massachusetts, Boston’s board of health created a voluntary vaccination program. When participation waned the city mandated it, issuing a $5 fine or 15 days in jail. The Supreme Court upheld this law.
Skepticism is natural when radical change is proposed of any kind. But science matters. And this isn’t 1821, it’s 2021, so we don’t have the excuses of an uneducated, mostly agrarian society. Conservatives can embrace science and still be consistent. Medical science brought us the smallpox vaccine, sanitation sewers, water purification, and clean standards for bars and restaurants. As a result, we haven’t had a cholera outbreak in 100 years. Smallpox has been dead here since the First World War, and worldwide since the 70’s. But at the time, these “draconian measures” were met with resistance. I am the loudest defender of individual liberty you’ll meet, but it ceases to be “individual” choice when it threatens others not involved in that choice. That’s why local and state rules exist for infectious disease control.
IGNORANCE IS DEADLIER THAN COVID19
We are so far removed from the fear and danger of real epidemics that we no longer understand the reason these rules exist. But just as the human body adjusts to the viruses of the world, so do they. So the potential for infectious disease outbreaks is potent, and in a globally-connected world, as imminent as ever. But there is a greater threat: the new infectious disease in the “Information Age” has become information itself. I can wear a mask to reduce the spread of Covid19, but persuading a willfully ignorant denier is as tough as saving the life of someone dying in the hospital of acute respiratory failure. Misinformation now goes viral, and our modern methods of communication have become carriers. And it’s literally killing us.
Masks reduce spread. Vaccinations save lives. Democrats don’t “hate America,“ and doctors don’t want to control you.
Triggered? None of these statements should, but these days, they’ll draw eye rolls and disdain from many. And that’s why I fear for our future. Many seek out disaffected doctors and fringe scientists to confirm their biases. As a result, we may never achieve true herd immunity from any pandemic again. Informed caution is normally good, but in this age of disinformation, rejecting medical consensus is proving imbecilic, and dangerous.
THE NUMBERS ARE REAL
Other lethal sicknesses did not magically disappear, nor did they decrease dramatically. The overall death toll was 16% higher than the previous year. COVID-19 replaced suicide to become the third leading cause of death in 2020. And as of March 2021, COVID-19 has killed over 550,000 people in the United States, and hospitalized over one million. In one year. This is true despite the measures taken to mitigate it’s spread, and intensity. It would be much worse had we not adjusted in its wake to do so. Working from home, limiting capacity, and wearing masks are all measures to prevent it’s spread. None of these are a cure, but that doesn’t make them useless.
If unassisted “herd immunity“ was a thing, why did smallpox take until 1979 to disappear? Why is measles or malaria still a thing? Vaccinations are a medical miracle, and public health is vital.
Mask up, vax up, and be responsible. Reasonableness is not the same as paranoia. But denial is the same as ignorance. Instead of making yourself a useful pawn in the political machine, be responsible. Not because the government told you to, but for the same reason you balance your books, lock your doors at night, wear your seatbelt, and wash your hands.
How can conservatives make a difference when we scoff at science, deny the obvious, and lose elections because of it?
Stop complaining about the government, and be self-governing.
You can contact Ed Willing on Facebook.
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Great column Ed. You articulated well about the differences between healthy skepticism and corrosive cynicism. The latter, if not tamed, can lead to misinformation in the form of disproven conspiracies and other flat out lies. And such misinformation has led to too many people disobeying common sense pandemic mitigation measures, and I believe that it is a major part of the reason the Covid-19 death toll here in the US is over 550k. Many on the right argue that because masks, social distancing, and other forms of pandemic mitigation aren't 100 percent foolproof, that it is proof in their eyes that it doesn't work. That kind of "100 percent or it doesn't work" is probably the most dangerous false dichotomy there is, IMO. Personal liberty does matter no doubt, and like you Ed I strongly support individual liberty as a libertarian leaning conservative. But we all know that without personal responsibility, liberty and freedom cannot flourish. In order for us to maintain a society premised on liberty, requires us as citizens to be responsible. Responsibility is also a fundamental tenet of conservatism, and its high time that all self-professed conservatives act as such.