Politics is biggest obstacle in fighting COVID-19

The debate about how to “reopen” Maine and other states has quickly escalated into a political war being waged by those who believe personal freedom is more important than public health.
Trump stands at podium at White House Press Briefing
President Trump speaks at the White House about the U.S. response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Photo via Getty Images.

The biggest problem with combating COVID-19 is not the struggle of science to come up with an answer. It’s politics.

The coronavirus is now the center of a war by the ideological right, led by the Republican Party, against efforts, led by many governors of both parties, to let science set the pace of recovery.

The anti-protection forces are composed of three elements, whose apparent purpose is to support reopening the economy, even if that means sweeping aside measures that have worked in limiting the spread of COVID-19.  

First, there are believers that personal freedom beats any common interest. They see government action to shut businesses, limit free movement and mandate wearing face coverings as illegal invasions of what should be their unfettered rights.

Second are right-wing opponents of issues from gun control to immigration who seek to exploit an opportunity to strengthen their movements.  They may be able to tap into new pools of people who could share their views. And current COVID-19 policies, like shutting down immigration, might help their cause later. 

When the list of essential businesses that could avoid a shutdown was published, the gun lobby noted the lack of gun shops. After it was belatedly added to the federal list, Maine GOP legislative leaders asked Gov. Mills to do the same. She did.

Third are Trump Republicans, who oppose governors undertaking necessary but unpopular measures, as a way of rebuilding support for President Trump and other Republicans.  By making reopening their cause, they hope the economy kicks back into high gear, an essential element of the Trump campaign and helpful to Republicans riding his coattails.

Now Maine Republican leaders want the Legislature to come back and strip Mills of the emergency powers they joined in giving her by voice vote before leaving Augusta. Their claim, refuted by the governor, is she didn’t consult them sufficiently.  

They did not attempt to create a bipartisan group, but made the appeal purely partisan. They apparently figure that opposition to the stay-at-home, wear-a-mask rules will grow to a point that Mainers would line up with the GOP in favor of reopening, and re-elect Sen. Susan Collins and even Trump.

With their emphasis on economic values over health risks, some opposition groups inaccurately assert that the overall death rate has not increased or argue that added COVID deaths are a reasonable price for people getting back to work. At the same time as the Trump administration pushes reopening, it openly recognizes there will be a major increase in cases and deaths.

Many governors, ranging from Janet Mills in Maine to Jay Inslee in Washington, emphasize the health of their citizens and follow the warnings of science about the risks arising from an unknown and deadly illness. Their states have produced better health results than others that are more politicized.

Their opponents want to exploit unhappiness with their tough measures. Opposition is also based on a desire to distract attention from the failure of the federal government and some states to be prepared for the crisis or react in a timely and appropriate manner.

The federal government should have been better prepared. Its reserve of medical supplies was supposed to be sufficient to meet emergencies. An administration in office for three years cannot blame earlier presidents when it has done nothing, even after being warned.

Instead, it simply changed the role of the national reserve by stating it was meant only as a backup to the states. The market power of the federal government in buying needed medical supplies was lost, forcing states to compete with one another and other countries with poor results.

In 1951, the Epidemic Intelligence Service was created. It is composed of thousands of medical personnel who know a lot about handling a crisis such as the U.S. now faces. It includes “disease detectives.”

Its policies suggest that there should be a single, reliable spokesperson. That person, who must convey bad news and tough rules, should be a scientist, not a politician. By having a single spokesperson, the message can be conveyed clearly. And this person should always show compassion and sympathy.

Maine does well in following E.I.S. practices. Dr. Nirav Shah, the state CDC director, is the spokesperson. Mills does not offer medical opinions but explains what she is doing, using the powers given her by the Legislature. While Shah appears daily, she does not.

Contrast Maine with federal briefings, usually dominated by Trump. There are several spokespersons and they contradict one another. At first, Trump downplayed the threat, hoping — using his word — that he could be the “cheerleader” for an early recovery, helpful to his re-election. He displays ignorance of science and research. Politics matter more than health.

COVID-19 can be brought under control, even without a universally effective medicine or a vaccine, by limiting the spread so that it dwindles. That can be done by everyone wearing a face covering. But it takes time, full participation and keeping the effort out of politics.

Politically, it takes courage to require compliance. It is more appealing to favor unfettered freedom. 

The opponents of fighting the spread have raised the issue. By advocating rapid reopening, they have also raised the stakes. In the end, it’s up to each person to decide.


Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies. He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.
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