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The Politicization of Disease

By Tucker Sechrest
25 Mar 2020
photograph of seesaw with 1 paper cutout man balanced against 20
“One against many” by pogonici (via depositphotos)

Obviously, keeping coronavirus and politics separate is impossible. There is no doubt that the disease will have (and already has had) a profound impact on this year’s political election. But even outside of this very practical sense, COVID-19 presents a political problem: How can we most usefully marshal our resources to combat a pandemic and best manage the expected (and unexpected) fallout?

The virus’s rapid spread has emptied everything from sports arenas packed with fans looking to see the King to the studio audiences of Late Night royalty. It’s laid waste to grocery stores and made princes of price gougers. It’s changed the shape of education, and altered the nature of employment. That our discussion of coronavirus get political is inevitable. Every day policy decisions are made regarding everything from curfews to quarantines. Even the WHO’s decision regarding if and when to call this recent outbreak a “pandemic” was a matter of political calculation.

But the current crisis has also provided ample opportunity for partisan exaggeration, posturing, and grandstanding. As we speak, Republicans and Democrats are locked in combat over the details of a $2 trillion relief bill with both sides accusing the other of prioritizing politics over public well-being. That criticism–prioritizing politics over the public good–is perhaps the best explanation of our disdain for politicization: when the possibility of political victory eclipses the pursuit of all other values. And the current crisis has already been seized on as an opportunity to gain significant ground in the war of ideology.

Earlier this month, in his Oval Office address, the president labelled our adversary a “foreign virus” which needed to be “defeated.” The intentional and repeated institutional use of phrases like “Chinese Virus” since has been explained as a strategy made of two parts immigration policy, one part trade war leverage, one part world relations retaliation, and perhaps one part misdirection. But regardless of the rationalization, these actions are gravely irresponsible and morally reprehensible, especially in a time when gun sales are skyrocketing and Asian Americans are purchasing firearms in response to increasing threats of violence made against them. Whatever political points there are to win here can’t be weighed against the very real and very present threat to human life.

Likewise, while Trump has laid claim to the “wartime president” mantle, he’s been loath to invoke the Defense Production Act relying instead on his famed deal-making skills. In the midst of critical shortages in medical supplies, Trump is betting on market forces to correct course. When challenged Sunday on why he was waiting for corporations to identify and satisfy current needs, the president was adamant that “we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business.” The president’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, echoed this sentiment stating that, “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.” When pressed further, Trump dared the press corps to “Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.”

Nevermind the false comparison between the Defense Production Act and nationalization, the president’s refusal to direct manufacturers is privileging economic rhetoric at the expense of public health. The current emergency situation calls for pooling national supplies, adjusting for mass production of basic goods like gloves, masks, gowns, respirators, and prioritizing distribution according to gravest needs. Without a coordinated approach by the federal government to make deliberate decisions about supplies and allocations, individual states have been left to fend for themselves. As Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker described it, “It’s a wild, wild West out there.”

Given these developments, the president’s announcement Monday that he was already rethinking the social and economic lockdown was not particularly shocking. As Adam Gaffney wrote on The Guardian last week, “Trump has made it clear he sees this pandemic chiefly as a threat to the market and wealthy people’s personal interests (and relatedly, his own political future) – not to the people whose lives it will threaten or claim.” The economic collapse we have yet to fully experience represents a very real threat to Trump’s private business interests and political fortunes. Concern for public health is, at best, a distant third. Dan Diamond of Politico has even claimed that Trump

“did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, […] partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear: the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”

Unfortunately, the prioritization of private goods over public health has not stopped there. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday arguing that we should all get back to work in the midst of this pandemic in order to mitigate the coming financial crisis. Senior citizens, Patrick argued, bear an obligation to their grandchildren to risk death in order to preserve Gen Z’s financial solvency. “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

Thankfully, the Lieutenant Governor’s suggestion of trading one’s life for another’s financial gain has been met with much scorn and derision. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo maintained that “You cannot put a value on human life,” and Bill Gates weighed in stating that we can’t just carry on and simply “ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.” Apart from arguments regarding the pricelessness of human life, it’s also important to note that framing the issue as one of personal choice fails to acknowledge the way in which those willing to take these risks undermines others’ ability to choose. One person’s behavior can put others at risk who have taken steps to insulate themselves; the value of personal choice cuts both ways.

While the reception of Patrick’s remarks have largely been heartening, his rallying cry isn’t without its supporters. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, for example, opened the university’s doors yesterday to welcome back students, and is expecting faculty to report to campus. Last week, The Atlantic offered a new take on an old saying: “Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a national emergency, there’s no truly laissez-faire government.” But the US seems forever poised to test the truth of that inference.

Tucker is the editor of The Prindle Post and a visiting scholar at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. He holds a PhD from Binghamton University with a focus in Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law.
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