By The Herald Editorial Board
Find a high-powered microscope and take a look at covid-19’s delta variant. Look closely. There. See a wry smile spreading across its spiky face?
That’s the variant trying hard to suppress a laugh over the verbal battles between two camps, disagreeing — often heatedly — over how best to fight the pandemic as it enjoys its latest surge in Washington state and the rest of the country.
The most recent misdirection of attention from covid itself is over Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent reimposition of a mandate for masks and the requirement for public school employees and others to get vaccinated against covid-19.
And as it has throughout the pandemic, any mandate, for masks or the vaccine, raises the ire of more than a few, such as state Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia.
“No other governor has gone so far to take deeply personal health care choices away from people and force them to inject something into their bodies,” Braun said in a statement last week.
Read that last bit slowly: “force them to inject something into their bodies.”
The “something” the senator is talking about isn’t heroin — or bleach; it’s a safe and effective life-saving vaccine that has been administered by trained medical staff to some 4.5 million in his own state and to nearly 200 million in the nation.
Of course, Braun knows this; he, himself, has been vaccinated and he has previously urged others to do the same. But in looking for a wedge with which to pry public opinion from Inlsee’s side — and on vaccination and masks mandates, a majority of that opinion is on the governor’s side — his imagery about injecting “something” into our bodies serves only to feed uniformed skepticism and even fear about the vaccine and does nothing to encourage the hesitant to get vaccinated.
Braun might excuse his quote as being unintentionally “tone-deaf.” After all, just a month ago it was Braun, in a commentary published in The Herald, who used the same term to call Inslee out for an unfortunate remark.
Asked by a reporter in early July if the governor would consider reforming the emergency powers of his office, Inslee responded: “I’m not sure you want to go back and reform when you’ve won the Super Bowl. And we’ve won the Super Bowl of the covid pandemic.”
A month ago, the Super Bowl analogy did sound tone-deaf; it seemed to minimize the losses and sacrifices of the state’s residents to covid-19 and the difficult — if effective — restrictions that were put in place since early in the pandemic. Now weeks later — with covid cases reaching their second-highest peak of the pandemic in the state and hospital ICU capacity now near 90 percent in Snohomish County and elsewhere in the state — the quote sounds tragically premature; nothing is close to having been won.
At the same time, the restrictions that Inslee put in place with the emergency orders can be credited with keeping covid illnesses and deaths in the state to comparatively low levels. With 83 deaths for every 100,000 people, Washington state still ranks seventh in the U.S. for lowest death rate, and it’s the most populous of the seven leading states. Hawaii is the lowest with 39 deaths per 100,000; New Jersey, the highest at 301.
To keep that ranking, Inslee has reimposed an earlier order, requiring use of face masks for all — 5 years and older and regardless of vaccination status — in all indoor public spaces and mandated vaccinations for K-12 public school staff, workers at child care centers and employees at the state’s universities and colleges.
Braun and others are not wrong for asking that attention be paid to issues of personal liberty and wanting to see less concentration of decision-making power for emergency orders solely in the governor’s hands. That concern is valid, and should be considered by state lawmakers at their next opportunity.
Democrats have been content to leave the reins of pandemic restrictions in Inslee’s hands, because he — in their opinion and ours — has used that power judiciously and effectively. But in other states, namely Florida and Texas, it’s easy to see the flip-side of gubernatorial overreach in the threats aimed at school district officials who seek to protect children by requiring masks in the classroom. State legislatures ought to have some avenue for review of a governor’s emergency orders.
The opening paragraph of Braun’s commentary states: “Politicians often say things they wish they hadn’t. Sometimes we’re trying to be funny and the humor falls flat. Sometimes anger or frustration gets the better of us. And sometimes, a politician will say something so flippant and insulting, out of total disregard for those who are suffering, that even supporters’ eyebrows are raised.”
Yes, they do. And yes, eyebrows are raised, at the moment in the direction of both Inlsee and Braun.
This is a time of heightened emotions and anxiety among the public. Many remain worried about the disease, their children and their return to school classrooms. Others find the mandates heavy-handed and an abuse of personal liberty. And both sides are worried about what the continued pandemic will mean for our public lives, either as a result of government restrictions or self-imposed caution regarding the safety of ourselves and our families.
We need public officials at all levels to take more care in how they make their case for their respective positions. Both sides are often guilty of intransigence in defending their points, but frustration over that stubbornness can’t be allowed to turn into insults, shaming and fear-mongering.
To be specific: Braun could have stated his opposition to the vaccine mandate without casting doubt on the vaccines themselves. Inslee, in defending his “Stay Safe” orders, should have acknowledged the sacrifices and losses to businesses, employment, education and freedom of movement that those restrictions required.
In addition to officials, the public shares in these responsibilities. Those who support the mask requirements and vaccine mandates must recognize that the most effective route to encouraging the use of masks and vaccines among those with concerns for personal liberty is through appeals to liberty’s partner, the very American ethic of personal responsibility to others. That we are having to rely on mandates now, rather than on persuasion, is recognition of a serious public health emergency and not an excuse for imposing mandates without careful consideration of their impacts.
Those seeking to protect personal liberties and choice are asked to consider that balance of freedom and responsibility. We accept many such limits — meant for the benefit of ourselves and others — without a second thought, including speed limits, food handlers’ permits and requirements for the education of children. You are not being asked to give up a measure of your liberty lightly; it is out of the legitimate concern that covid-19 — in particular, the delta variant — is highly contagious and is not in your ability to control, except with the aid of masks and vaccines.
At the start of this pandemic the refrain that we were in this together was heard often; of late, that chorus has been drowned out by our infighting. And the snickering of a smiling virus.