Here's how conservatives have prolonged the COVID-19 pandemic

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It didn't have to be this way.

Nearly two full years after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Americans' lives are still being dictated by the virus.

Hundreds are still dying every day, largely the unvaccinated, whose refusal to take a life-saving medicine has turned herd immunity into a faraway fantasy.

But it didn't have to be this way.

More lives could have been saved. Interruptions that have come to mark daily life in the 2020s could have been mitigated.

At every turn, conservatives — from President Donald Trump on down to local lawmakers — undermined the seriousness of the virus, politicized public health measures, and worked tirelessly to subvert guidelines that would have kept people out of hospitals.

Below is a running tally of the myriad ways in which Republicans have prolonged this seemingly unending pandemic, now in its third year and still overwhelming hospitals.

Congress

Within two months of taking office, President Joe Biden managed to corral support for a historic $1.9 billion stimulus package that sent $1,400 direct-mail checks to every American, supported struggling small businesses, lowered health insurance premiums, extended unemployment benefits, and expanded tax credits designed to lift children out of poverty.

Republicans were united in their opposition to the American Rescue Plan.

But beyond their legislative intransigence, GOP senators and representatives promoted coronavirus misinformation at every turn, turning apolitical scientific facts into culture war topics.

Members have touted unproven drugs to their constituents, questioned the effectiveness of vaccines, and made ahistorical comparisons between public health measures and the Holocaust.

Republicans have also repeatedly antagonized public health leaders.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has used congressional hearings to lob falsehoods at Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Paul has accused him of being part of a team that created the virus in a Chinese laboratory.

Governors

Governors have served as the lead architects of their states' COVID-19 responses. But in GOP-led states, governors have forcefully fought back against common-sense public health requirements.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis ruled by executive order that only parents can decide whether their children wear masks in school in defiance of CDC recommendations. Virginia's newly seated governor, Glenn Youngkin, followed suit last weekend.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott banned private companies from mandating their employees receive the vaccine to work.

Last summer, GOP governors also mobilized to cut off $300-a-week unemployment assistance for their residents to encourage people to get back to work, even though experts warned the move would reduce income and consumer spending while hurting workers of color.

Months later, DeSantis and state lawmakers in multiple other states did propose expanding unemployment benefits, but just for residents who were fired for refusing the vaccine.

Governors including DeSantis, Abbott, and Missouri's Mike Parson have also pushed alternative treatments for their residents, such as expensive antibody treatments, in lieu of masking and vaccines.

And they've flouted public health guidelines themselves, setting an example for unvaccinated residents to go out in public unmasked and spread the virus.

In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem trumpeted her state's Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in 2021, making a dramatic entrance on horseback and waving an American flag, despite public health experts' warnings that an event drawing half a million people could be dangerous amid the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Following the event, COVID-19 cases spiked in the area.

State and local lawmakers

Across the country, conservative state and local elected officials have banded together to strip Democratic and Republican governors of their emergency COVID-19 powers over issues like spending of federal relief money or plans to reopen the economy.

State lawmakers have worked to curtail public health measures and ban vaccine and mask mandates. They've also invited vaccine skeptics and conspiracy theorists to state capitols, and have questioned vaccine effectiveness before an audience of vulnerable constituents.

GOP Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz argued the pandemic may be "punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins" and introduced a resolution in March 2020 calling for "A State Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer."

Idaho state Rep. Heather Scott declared, "The pandemic is over" at the start of the 2021 legislative session, and later accused the National Governors Association of being run by "globalists" after the organization released a statement with tips about virus misinformation.

Sheriffs

A new movement has sprouted up among the nation's law enforcement officers that has resulted in more anti-public health fervor across the country.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a right-wing anti-government group, claims membership of hundreds of sheriffs nationwide. These officers assert the power to interpret laws however they see fit, answering only to voters and not to state or federal authorities.

As a result, sheriffs have been meeting public health guidelines delivered from governors with staunch opposition and a refusal to enforce the rules.

Officers have also faced lawsuits for their treatment of people in prison throughout the pandemic.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against a sheriff in Arkansas after a prison doctor treated COVID-positive patients with the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, which research shows can cause serious harm and has not been approved for COVID-19 treatment.

Sheriffs have also been sued in California and Colorado for failing to enforce proper social distancing for people in jails, report positive cases, or administer testing.

Right-wing media

The right-wing media, including outlets like Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network, have broadcast misinformation about the pandemic that's having a strong effect on their viewers and further politicizing what began as apolitical public health guidance.

The misinformation began in March 2020, when Fox News first started downplaying the virus's threat. On March 9, Fox host Sean Hannity said the virus was being used to "bludgeon Trump with this new hoax."

With each new development, Fox News was there, villainizing public health leaders and their suggestions. Conservative pundits mocked masks and minimized the virus’s threat throughout the fall of 2020.

Since COVID-19 vaccines became widely available for Americans, these outlets have continued to caution Americans against getting inoculated, despite the fact that the vaccine has been shown to be highly effective in fighting the virus in countless clinical studies.

Polling has demonstrated just how widespread the right-wing media's disinformation campaign has been on the American electorate.

A December 2020 analysis conducted by three political scientists at U.S. universities found nearly that right-wing media had published almost 4,000 stories with COVID-19 misinformation between Feb. 1 and March 23, 2020.

And almost 80% of Americans believe or are unsure about pandemic-related misinformation, according to a November Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Those who believed in COVID-19 conspiracy theories also noted their trust in the right-wing outlets that have promulgated them throughout the last two years.

The survey found that numerous respondents believed the government to be exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths in addition to a slate of other vaccine mistruths: that it alters your DNA, can infect you with the virus, or contains a microchip.

Donald Trump

Of course, the progenitor of COVID-19 misinformation and pandemic mismanagement is the de facto leader of the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump.

He frequently undermined his own public health advisers, promoted falsehoods about the virus, interfered with public health agencies, violated guidelines, and failed to take seriously a life-threatening pandemic in its early days.

Researchers at Cornell University found that Trump's statements questioning masks, boosting unscientific treatments, and accusing the Food and Drug Administration of being part of the "deep state" and misrepresenting testing results to be the most widespread source of pandemic misinformation at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

That. year, Trump insisted a vaccine was coming much sooner than scientists predicted, before the November election; blamed the media for reporting supposedly inaccurate testing totals; labeled unproven treatments as cures; and promised the virus was "going away" and that he had ended the pandemic when it was in fact still raging.

He also sought to interfere with public health leaders who were trying to get the pandemic under control.

Trump; Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump's pandemic adviser with no public health experience; and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, worked to sideline the CDC, according to emails and transcripts unveiled by a House committee investigating the administration's pandemic mishandling.

Trump withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization, cutting off crucial funding to the global health agency after it failed to meet his demands for promoting travel restrictions and investigating China's role in the pandemic.

He also personally contradicted his own public health advisers. Trump would frequently criticize Fauci, who was the nation's primary public health messenger at the time, and lambaste him over his recommendations to social distance and wear masks.

Trump set a poor example for Americans by frequently violating CDC guidelines, hosting numerous rallies with unmasked attendees, meeting with advisers and guests in close proximity with no masks, and holding a Rose Garden ceremony and indoor reception for then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Trump and other attendees later tested positive for COVID-19.

Former White House COVID-19 response coordinator Deborah Birx told the House last October that Trump very well could have saved more than 130,000 lives if he had taken heed of guidance from his public health advisers.

A UCLA researcher set the number of casualties of Trump's mismanagement much higher, estimating 400,000 lives could have been saved if Trump had implemented widespread testing and mask mandates.

With 850,000 total dead from COVID-19 in America, that means if Trump had chosen to listen to the science instead of demeaning it, he could have halved the death toll of America's deadliest pandemic.

Instead, with the help of conservative allies intent on demonizing public health figures and amplifying conspiracy theories, the toll continues to rise, as Americans wonder whether an end to this pandemic will ever be in sight.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.