Comment: Opposing vaccines, masks isn’t principled; it’s deadly

Mother Nature and covid have shown little patience with the anti-factual hubris of anti-vaxxers.

By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg Opinion

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., is a controversial former police officer and car dealer. The “Cajun John Wayne” is neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, and he has disclosed that he contracted covid-19 (or what he calls “the CCP biological attack weaponized virus”) for the second time. He hasn’t said if he has been vaccinated but suggested on Facebook that he plans to treat his malady with “western, eastern and holistic variables.”

Providing informed public health guidance — and requiring compliance — isn’t his thing, anyway.

“If you want to get vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t, then don’t. That’s your right as a free American,” he noted on Facebook in May. “I do not support mandatory vaccines, mask mandates or any form of required vaccine passport. In fact, I am introducing legislation making mandated or forced compliance with medical procedures a federal crime.”

Attempting to criminalize public health measures, which can intimidate health experts even if legislation never passes, dovetails with the philosophy and tactics of Higgins’ fellow travelers. As the Washington Post reported on Sunday, Republican legislators nationwide continue to invoke updated versions of “Don’t Tread On Me” and rugged individualism to constrain medical experts they regard as embodiments of government overreach. The Supreme Court has been sympathetic to some of this.

At least 15 state legislatures have enacted or proposed measures circumscribing public health agencies’ independence and legal powers. At least 46 states have introduced bills meant to curb gubernatorial or executive actions during health-care crises, national security flare-ups, natural disasters and other emergencies.

Unlimited executive powers, couched in the language of a never-ending emergency, are well worth monitoring and checking, of course. Debates around the Patriot Act and limitations on presidential powers in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were healthy and necessary. They also became more heated each time the act was reauthorized because years had passed since the emergency that originally inspired it.

We certainly haven’t fully escaped the covid-19 emergency, however, as the delta variant keeps reminding us. Future versions of the virus might continue teaching us the same lesson. And federal and state governments’ dangerous and lackluster response to covid-19’s initial onslaught hasn’t been upgraded nearly enough to give anyone confidence that politicians, conspiracy theorists, rodeo clowns and other non-experts should be restraining their more deeply informed and experienced compatriots.

Head-butting over threats to individualism has a pedigree in the U.S. stretching from the Revolutionary and Civil wars through the New Deal and into the Reagan and Trump years. Sometimes the arguments against a strong central government, and advocacy for individual rights, have been principled. They’ve often been used to mask and enable selfishness or predatory, grotesque behavior (slavery and greed come to mind). Sometimes, particularly in the anti-mask, anti-vaccine fanaticism of the covid-19 era, they’re cartoonish; and deadly.

A North Dakota law would prohibit mask mandates, even if there was a tuberculosis outbreak. An Ohio law essentially gives unilateral power to the state legislature to manage the spread of contagious diseases, undermining local health agencies’ ability to respond quickly to medical emergencies. A Montana law bans the use of quarantines for infected individuals who are not symptomatic, undercutting a basic tool used to spread the outbreak of diseases.

Some private and public organizations in the U.S. and in other countries have decided that the only way to keep a safe distance from individuals is to forbid them entry until they’ve been vaccinated. Perhaps that was inevitable, now that gentler forms of persuasion appear to have run their course even though covid-19 hasn’t.

The economy, markets, jobs, communities, families and future generations are at risk, otherwise, because Mother Nature has shown little patience with the anti-factual hubris of folks like Higgins.

“I would die rather than sacrifice my principles,” Higgins said in 2016 when he resigned as a police officer following a public backlash against his conduct on the job. “I would leave my wife without a husband, my children without a daddy, rather than kneel to the very forces of evil that I have so long stood against.”

Respecting reality and expertise is not submission, though. And when you are willing to put your self-interest ahead of the well-being of people and communities that depend on you, a new philosophy is in order.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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