Hartmann: Doing Nothing Isn't a COVID-19 Strategy

Mourners at the Requiem of Light on October 2 remember St. Louisans who've died from COVID-19.
Mourners at the Requiem of Light on October 2 remember St. Louisans who've died from COVID-19. PHUONG BUI

During the week ending October 1, someone in Missouri died of COVID-19 every 5 hours and 15 minutes. The total of 32 deaths was nearly double the seventeen souls lost over the same seven-day period one year earlier.

That will have to pass for "Conquering COVID-19 — Keeping Missourians Safe," the slogan on the website of Governor Mike Parson. There, one can find a list of all the fine things that Parson claims to have done "to respond, rebuild and recover" from the coronavirus.

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Historians can debate how much Missouri might have lowered its present death toll of 12,000-plus had Parson not punted many responsibilities to local entities that other states did not. Had it been such a great idea to have been among only a dozen states never to enact a mask mandate — or the one last to have closed schools in early 2020 — Parson might be citing such as an accomplishment today. He is not.

By contrast, here's the most telltale sentence: "Governor Parson is committed to providing the opportunity for a COVID-19 vaccine to every Missourian that wants one. As the state makes progress and vaccination efforts continue, Missouri has seen significant declines in virus activity, which has led to decreased levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state."

The reference "to every Missourian that wants one" speaks volumes. Rather than urging citizens to have common sense and get vaccinated, Parson offers grudging accommodation to those who "want" to participate in public health.

In another time, or another state, one could imagine a radical statement such as this: "Governor Parson, who himself is fully vaccinated, strongly urges Missourians to follow suit and get the vaccine to protect themselves, their families and their communities."

Parson didn't urge anything of the kind. Rather he channeled the Three Stooges: "One for all, all for one and every man for himself!"

Parson's belief system is clear: There is no role for government to shape citizens' public-health behavior in a pandemic other than by polite suggestion. It is strictly a "personal choice" as to whether an individual respects the health and safety of others in the community.

It is no coincidence that more than half of Missourians are not fully vaccinated more than half a year after vaccines became widely available. With just 48.44 percent fully jabbed as of the start of this month, Missouri has the thirteenth-lowest rate of protection in the nation. (Of the bottom 24 states, all are red except for purple Arizona, Nevada and Georgia).

No one can be sure what the future holds in the roller-coaster ride of a pandemic and its variants. But with the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations occurring among the unvaccinated, it's a safe bet that the states in the bottom rung of the nation are looking at the most trouble down the road.

Parson's own website implies as much with its passive note that when vaccines "continue," hospitalizations decrease. Note that the governor and his staff couldn't bring themselves to see the words "more" and "vaccines" in the same sentence.

Here again, the language is no accident. Ever since Donald Trump refused to wear a mask in public at the very moment his own administration's COVID-19 Task Force was beseeching Americans to do so — he claimed it showed weakness — obedient Republicans have irrationally conflated common sense with tyranny.

This has seeped into GOP politics at all levels, with Parson one of the most reckless of the governors. The only counterparts to match his negligence are seeking higher office.

Parson made a powerful statement by getting COVID-19 — after flaunting his refusal to wear masks — and then failing to utter a syllable of humility or remorse about the experience. It might have provided a pivotal point or leadership moment for the governor, and for First Lady Teresa Parson, who got the virus at the same time. It did not.

Missouri's Republican legislators have been just as derelict, consistently refusing to wear masks and follow other recommendations of their own government's Department of Health and Senior Services, a department run by appointees of their own political party. Even as a substantial number of their own number got COVID-19.

Most memorable locally was state Senator Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, who confirmed he had COVID-19 less than 48 hours after uttering the words, "It's my choice if I want to risk getting COVID. Just like I get in a car every day, I could potentially get in a car accident and die." It's not known how Koenig fared in his debate with a box of rocks that day.

No real-world consequences have mattered to Republicans, not even tragic ones amongst themselves. Consider the death August 19 from COVID-19 of Steve Walsh, spokesman for U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler — and the husband of state Representative Sara Walsh, R-Ashland. Both Walshes were proudly unvaccinated, and he had enjoyed retweeting ridicule of those who promoted the vaccine.

All his widow could do was convey on social media how shattered she was at losing the love of her life. But no regret, no remorse, no "Come to Jesus" moment other than the literal kind. Parson held a moment of silence for Walsh at the Governor's Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair. Hartzler asked for privacy for Walsh's family. Sara Walsh resumed her campaign for the congressional seat being vacated by Hartzler.

Unabated, Republicans throughout Missouri have continued to advance the foul argument that it represents tyranny for governments to use health departments to issue public-health rules in a pandemic. What's next? Meat inspections? Health rules for restaurants and bars? Such a slippery slope.

It should be noted that Republicans are not specifically advocating the elimination of public health departments. Just that they be ignored, denigrated or even slandered when the higher calling of red-meat politics so dictates.

This is no great shock. Republicans openly embrace the Big Lie that Trump won an election he so clearly lost. Facts are fake news. Institutions can no longer be trusted. Doctors and public health experts secretly wish to kill you.

Vaccinated politicians, media figures and other thought leaders on the Right are the ones delivering the anti-vaccine, anti-mask messages to the gullible. They could not care less about harming or even killing their own loyal followers.

The same Republicans have absolutely no answer as to what to do about reducing the spread of the virus. They don't have a single constructive thought to offer.

They oppose mandating, or even effectuating, life-saving vaccines. They oppose even marginal government rules regarding mask-wearing. But they advocate no alternative, no solution whatsoever.

Recently, I asked one anti-mandate Republican politician — a good guy, one of the rational ones — what he was "for" government doing. He didn't pretend to have an answer. "We're just going to have to learn to live with COVID," he told me. Jonas Salk rolled over in his grave.

No wonder Republicans across Missouri had nothing to offer but condolences when Walsh passed away. Not a word was uttered about how Walsh's death might be a lesson or an epiphany or even a strong hint that getting vaccinated beats the alternative. That would suggest conceding a point to the other side, a fate apparently worse than death.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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