EDITORIAL: A partisan pandemic?

York Dispatch Editorial Board
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., wears a gas mask March 4, 2020 on the floor of Congress. Days later, he self-quarantined after being exposed to coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis. Not a Democratic health crisis or a Republican health crisis. Not a conservative health crisis or a liberal health crisis. A public health crisis.

But that would be hard to tell judging by the responses from lawmakers and opinionistas on the right, who have taken partisan intransigence to new and, unfortunately, life-threatening levels.

Throughout the crucial early months of this year, while the deadly virus was taking root across the country, conservative talking heads and Republican lawmakers did their level best to not only ignore the crisis, but to downplay it as some sort of left-wing conspiracy abetted by the press.

“This scaring the living hell out of people — I see it, again, as like, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,” bellowed Fox host Sean Hannity on March 9.

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Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida wore a gasmask on the House floor during debate on the coronavirus bailout package. That knee-slapper aged poorly, as a resident of his district succumbed to the virus the following day and Gaetz himself was forced to self-quarantine days later after coming in contact with an infected individual. (Yes, the irony was lost on him.)

And state and federal GOP lawmakers like Rep. Devin Nunes of California urged Americans to ignore concerns and go about their business.

“I’m going to go out into public right now,” Kansas’s Senate health committee Chairman Gene Suellentrop declared following Gov. Laura Kelly’s March 17 decision to close public schools and send state workers home. “I’m going to go have dinner, I’m going to mingle, and I’m going to spend money in the economy, to keep things moving. I hope everybody else does, too.”

And so it went, around the nation. Governors in blue states like New York and California moved quickly to close schools and issue stay-at-home orders. Red-state leaders followed slowly and reluctantly or, in some cases, not at all.

Respected media reported accurately on the outbreak and models projecting skyrocketing infection and mortality rates. Conservative media figures cast doubt on the seriousness of the outbreak, lulling gullible audience members into a false sense of security.

It continues yet.

Just Monday, Fox News contributor Bill Bennett compared the coronavirus to the flu, asserting the outbreak “was not and is not a pandemic.” We’re sure that’s a relief to the tens of thousands of families mourning lost loved ones around the world.

Fox talking heads continue to make support for an untested, unproven vaccine a political litmus test.

Republican critics are calling for the head of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the few knowledgeable voices amid the president’s coronavirus response team, for speaking truthfully about the pandemic and the government’s response.

And then there’s the president.

He was one of the leading voices in dismissing early concerns about the severity of the outbreak: bragging it was under control, comparing it to the flu and insisting Democrats were politicizing it for political gain.

As a damning pair of recent reports by the New York Times and the Washington Post make clear, this initial deflection and dawdling cost the nation weeks of preparation time, enabling the virus to take root nationwide.

A pandemic is no time for partisanship. Blinkered political posturing is bad enough when it comes to public policy and economic issues. It’s downright dangerous in times of a viral outbreak.

The Gene Suellentrops who proudly, blithely, ignorantly step out to “mingle” are putting others in harm’s way — countless others when they urge the public to follow suit.

The Bill Bennetts who dismiss the pandemic as no worse than the flu mislead viewers as to the lethality of the outbreak.

The Donald Trumps who use public health crises as a platform for political points leave their followers dangerously misinformed and the rest of the nation poorly equipped for what has become a life-or-death battle.

When it comes to a global pandemic, closed-minded partisanship leads to bipartisan pain, suffering and loss.