Opinion

The Republican pandemic response is breaking my brain

Give me horse paste or give me death?

Nine months after several highly effective coronavirus vaccines started to become available in America, and three to five months after they became available in pharmacies across the country, the pandemic is now as bad as it's ever been in many states. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina, daily hospitalizations and deaths are at or near the March 2020 peak, while in Florida the previous records have been far surpassed.

At the same time, conservative elites are doing their level best to spread the virus as much as possible, even as COVID-19 is killing conservatives by the thousands. It's willful, malign negligence on a mind-boggling scale.

I can barely keep up with the number of minor conservative figures who have died of COVID after refusing to take the vaccine. The radio host Phil Valentine is dead after having mocked the vaccine, and so is Newsmax host Dick Farell. The same is true of Texas Republican official Scott Apley. South Carolina party official Pressley Stutts continued to post anti-vaccine conspiracy theories from his COVID ICU bed until he died. And among the voting base, it's total carnage.

Yet Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is still in a ferocious dispute with his state's school districts about mask mandates, as his state's pediatric ICU beds are swamped. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently issued an (almost certainly unconstitutional) order banning any institution receiving public funds from requiring vaccines. South Dakota recently held the Sturgis motorcycle rally again with the furious support of Gov. Kristi Noem — despite the fact that the state is trailing in vaccination and last year the rally created a pandemic charnel house. Unsurprisingly, cases there are once again shooting through the roof.

The story that might have fully broken my brain for good is the recent plague of conservatives poisoning themselves with veterinary deworming paste. The idea is to get a drug called ivermectin, which has been promoted as yet another coronavirus miracle cure by various fringe quacks. Perhaps the most prominent is the former biology professor Bret Weinstein, who has been publishing anti-vaccine propaganda on a podcast and YouTube in the classic passive-aggressive "just asking questions" fashion.

As Jef Rouner explains at Houston Press, the formula is simple and lucrative: raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the vaccines with complicated but false arguments that are hard for a layman to untangle, launder extreme claims by interviewing total lunatics, all while recommending unproven miracle remedies the shadowy Big Pharma conspiracy is supposedly suppressing. Then when you get in trouble for spreading antivaccine lies during a global pandemic, scream that you're being "censored" to get more attention, and watch the subscription numbers jump. Sure enough, Weinstein got on Fox News and other conservative outlets after YouTube demonetized his channel and deleted some videos. He even got a friendly reception from ex-leftist Matt Taibbi, who wrote two articles about ivermectin treating Weinstein as a credible source and a victim of Big Tech censorship.

In terms of science, the story is virtually identical to what happened with hydroxychloroquine — promising initial evidence that has crumbled on further scrutiny. One big study was retracted when it turned out much of the abstract was plagiarized and the data was faked. A meta-analysis examining 14 studies published late last month found highly equivocal results: "Overall, the reliable evidence available does not support the use [of] ivermectin for treatment or prevention of COVID-19 outside of well-designed randomized trials."

To answer Taibbi's duplicitous leading question, there are two reasons why it is a bad idea to trumpet the possibility of unproven miracle cures during a pandemic. First, even the promising initial studies did not show ivermectin to be anywhere close to as protective as the vaccines, which are among the most-studied treatments in the history of medicine. Second, spreading overheated rumors about miracle drugs before the evidence is in will lead credulous people to take it without knowledge of proper dosage or considering toxic interactions. Sure enough, deworming paste is flying off the shelves, some doctor in Arkansas is giving it to prisoners, and calls to poison control centers are skyrocketing across the South. Facebook groups are full of stories of poisoned people suffering severe diarrhea and expelling "rope worms," which turn out to be almost certainly shreds of intestinal lining.

But in terms of politics, the horse paste saga is a perfect window in the conservative mindset that is currently the biggest force fueling the pandemic. The core behavior here is muleheaded, selfish spitefulness, adhered to even at great personal risk. "Freedom" for movement conservatives is entirely one-directional: They get to spray virus fog whenever and wherever they want, and they also get to force you or your kids to not wear a mask.

Because that behavior is so monstrous, there is a large incentive to make up comforting lies about how the pandemic is exaggerated or fake, or the vaccines don't work — much facilitated by the fact that consuming right-wing media for very long tends to turn your brain into horse paste. Some right-wing voices pushing this line actually believe it, as shown by the lamented dead above. But others are just cynical — Abbott recently came down with COVID, but it turns out he had not only been vaccinated but also had already gotten a booster shot, and was getting daily tests, so had a very mild case.

Finally, because the financial engine of the conservative media complex is tricking gullible retired people into buying brain pills and reverse mortgages, conservatives are easy pickings for cynical and/or deluded grifters hawking snake oil remedies when they do contract COVID after coughing into each other's face at the Cheesecake Factory to own the libs.

Yet another wave of completely pointless death seems to be motivating a lot of people to finally get vaccinated — but thus far the procrastinators, not the ideological, hard core antivaxxers. Even when Donald Trump tried to argue for the vaccine at a rally in Alabama recently, he was booed. It seems the pandemic will keep burning out of control until just about every conservative vaccine refusenik has gotten COVID. Another few months ought to do it.

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