Notes from the US (August part 1 edition)

Freedom’s long-running US correspondent Louis Further does his monthly roundup of some of the lesser-known stories that have emerged over the last few weeks.

“We are at a moment of truth and a crossroads. Will we allow these people to use fear and propaganda to do further harm to our society, economy, and children? Or will we stand together and say, absolutely not. Not this time. I choose freedom.”

That is Republican senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) on Monday this week failing to see that his selfish ‘freedom’ will harm others. He is encouraging people to refuse to follow mandates recommended by experts; to defy the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); to turn their backs on the consensus of 99% of epidemiologists, virologists and physicians concerned at the huge (but completely predictable and largely preventable) rise of the Delta variant in the US, particularly since the start of last month.

“There should be no mandates – zero – concerning COVID. That means no mask mandates, regardless of your vaccination status, that means no vaccine mandates, that means no vaccine passports.” That was Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) as the number of new cases and deaths continued to rise in his state – doubling, in fact, every few days. Cruz has also introduced bills into the US Senate to prevent lives from being saved.

Since the publication of last month’s ‘Notes from the US’, the scale and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic have increased dramatically. Last weekend new cases topped a quarter of a million in one day, the third highest since the pandemic began in January 2020, while the seven day average is back up to over 100,000.

So August’s ‘Notes from the US’ will be split in two: today the pandemic. In a fortnight a survey and some analysis of the equally dire scene in other aspects of life in the United States.

Danger

Imperfect – but still highly effective – remedial measures have been known about, and available, for more than a year in the case of distancing and masks; and for over half that time in the case of vaccines. But the USA still has the highest number per capita of cases and deaths in the world. It is now in a worse position than it was this time last year. This is largely because of the politicisation (‘tribalisation’ might be a better word) of the pandemic: minimising its severity and even – at times – its very existence; denying the medical evidence; espousing pseudo science; believing nonsense conspiracy theories about its ‘real purpose’ etc).

This process is aided by the mass spread of attendant disinformation on social and fascist media. Indeed a study just published by three scholars at a university in Zürich claims to be able to show a direct correlation (which is not the same thing as causality – nor has the study been peer reviewed) between exposure to the drivel broadcast by Fox ‘News’ and the likelihood of becoming infected by Covid-19. The very health measures which are accepted the world over as needed to keep people alive and safe should not be followed, these media say, because they deprive families of personal choice and they represent government overreach and are designed to exaggerate a non-existent threat.

Yes, anarchists are – and should be – the first to doubt and reject the intervention of governments in people’s lives. Most governments and their agents undoubtedly have done – and do – more harm than good. But in times of crisis – particularly in this time of crisis – such rejection is a mistake, because what the US government is asking for is at the informed direction of the medical community. It is an indication of how immature and crass the American relationship with its polity is that half the country can’t distinguish between helpful intervention and unwelcome overreach.

Division

There is now clear water between two broad factions in the United States in their responses to the pandemic.

On the one hand there is the roughly one third of adults in the country who voted for Trump in November 2020. They are largely unvaccinated and seem likely to dig their heels in when responding to mask wearing and vaccination. Most are Republicans – seemingly welded to their addiction to the Trump cult. This cult has the overwhelming majority of lawmakers, governors and local party officials to speak for them; and the far right propaganda outlets on line and on radio and TV to pump them full of disinformation, lies and vitriolic nonsense about the pandemic and potential solutions to – or at least ameliorations for – its worst effects.

On the other hand is the remaining majority. It is almost all vaccinated; and is increasingly angry at what is being asked of it by the trumpers. Those in this majority seem to understand enough virology and epidemiology to want to act in the common good because no-one is safe until everyone is safe.

The country ‘opened’ prematurely just over a month ago. (Although some places had never fully ‘closed’.) The CDC and the Biden administration acted as though wishing that the pandemic were over is the same thing as its actually being over. They ignored the Delta variant’s much greater potential to transmit the disease. The metric, R0, which indicates the number of people who will become infected from any one carrier, has risen to 8 now. Only when R0 is lower than 1 can the spread be attenuated.

The US is now back to where it has been twice before – in July 2020 and March 2021. Except that now vaccines are available and roughly half those eligible have been vaccinated. So the number of cases should be falling. Yet they are rising in every single state. More and more statisticians and pollsters suggest that the US may never pass beyond a ceiling with vaccine refusers indefinitely making up 50% of the eligible population. So at times it is hard to see how the USA can ever rid itself of the virus and ensure safety for those who live in the country – or travel abroad from it. Especially with the likely advent of new, yet more deadly, variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Florida and Texas

It is clear now that the official policy of the still all-powerful opposition Republican party is to resist any and all measures to attenuate the spread of the virus. For spurious and doctrinaire reasons. And so to increase infection, illness and death. In the name of ‘personal choice’. “The rest of you can go to hell.”

Florida is the latest Covid ‘hotspot’, contributing over 20% of all cases and deaths yet accounting for less than 7% of the country’s population.

Perhaps most alarming are the measures dictated by governors in the states of Texas and Florida which effectively prohibit the use of masks in schools by making mandates illegal. It seems likely that many thousands of school children must become infected as the new school year starts this week and next, and that a percentage of those will die because of the actions of Governors Abbott (Texas) and DeSantis (Florida).

Attempts to ridicule, vilify and even threaten Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to Biden are growing. He is the target of DeSantis’s election campaign in an embarrassingly infantile ‘merchandising’ effort.

Within days of Trump addict, Ron DeSantis’s, executive order last month to ban mask mandates in schools, Broward County in South Florida reversed its previous decision to try and save children’s lives by requiring everyone to wear masks in its schools and buildings because its officials were told that they would lose state funding if they went ahead with their plans.

This was followed up at the start of this week by a threat from DeSantis (after whom an increasing number of commentators are suggesting that the Delta variant should be renamed) to withhold educators’ salaries if they defied him In any other situation this would quickly be recognised as mass child abuse/murder. Although some have begun to do so last week.

(Florida is no stranger to destruction and murder, though: in late July a toxic algae bloom known as Red Tide washed up over 600 tons of dead marine life along the coast of the state. This is not the first time that polluters appear to have caused such slaughter; the incident is now being linked to a disaster at the decommissioned Piney Point agribusiness plant in May. Although state officials at first denied the connection, the phosphate plant’s reservoirs were breached in the spring; that threatened residents in the area with over six metres of radioactive wastewater; this in turn forced the release of 200 million gallons of the wastewater into Tampa Bay.)

Along the coast in Texas, another Trump addict and mass murderer, Governor Greg Abbott, signed a muddled and overtly racist executive order at about the same time blaming the rise in Covid-19 infections on… wait for it… ‘illegal aliens’ at the border. If in doubt, open your manuals to page 66 and take a shot (often literally: the order directs the state’s Department of Public Safety to ‘stop and reroute’ any vehicle ‘upon reasonable suspicion’) at the guest workers who make a greater contribution to the economy than they draw on it. Both DeSantis and Abbott have since had to ask for external aid to help run the hospitals as they struggle to cope with an exceptional crisis which is in large part of their own making.

More danger

At least six other states – Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah – have also made it illegal for schools to require either coronavirus vaccinations or documentation of vaccination status. Five of these have exceptionally high rates of Covid infections. All of them require analogous measures for vaccinations against other childhood illnesses.

There was a development in Tennessee just as last month’s ‘Notes from the US’ was published which typifies the vicious stupidity perpetrated across the United States in almost all cases by the trumpy states. Dr. Michelle Fiscus was the Medical Director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunisation programmes at the Tennessee Department of Health. She was sacked at the beginning of that week – ostensibly because she drew attention to the existence of a state policy, which has been in existence for decades, governing the rights of minors aged between 14 and 17 with respect to vaccinations.

Although the immediate case was – obviously – the Covid 19 vaccines, the right wing legislature in Tennessee (which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the entire United States), took exception the fact that Fiscus’ was informing her colleagues of available remediation resources. 

But it gets worse: after Fiscus was sacked, politicians in the state upped the disinformation about all vaccinations (for children and young people). They withdrew or cancelled programmes to promote any and all childhood immunisation – putting millions of lives at risk. Significantly, Fiscus became the 25th of 64 state and territorial immunisation programme directors to leave or lose their jobs since the pandemic began.

This came at the same time as the nation’s largest union of registered nurses (the National Nurses United or NNU) called on the CDC to re-instate the federal mask mandate. NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo signed the letter, which read: ‘…The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over…’

The hope that such a measure might be taken and save lives and suffering is a fond one – not so much because of whether the CDC would agree or not, but because a majority would not follow such a common sense requirement: their personal rights to live (and die) as they want would take precedence over others’ lives.

Death Cult

Speakers from and representatives of the Republican party are increasingly whipping up support for the refusal to wear masks. They applaud low vaccination rates in their localities. Indeed, the infamous trump addict Marjorie Taylor Greene (whose Twitter account was suspended – again – on Tuesday for spreading disinformation about vaccines) has been caught advocating that any health official who visits residents in her state to advise them of their health options in the pandemic be shot. Yes, some of this has to be silly posturing; much of it has to be sheer ignorance. But it’s dangerous and infectious nevertheless.

The same goes for some more… ‘outspoken’ religious ‘leaders’. People have died in the congregation of pastor Greg Locke in Tennessee, for instance; yet he continues to disallow masks at his church. For him the pandemic is all ‘fake news’ designed to change election results against Trump. His congregation is growing in size as a result of his very vocal stance.

The stupidity is spreading – like the virus: The Yo Transportation taxi company in St Louis Missouri is one of a growing number of businesses which refuse to take passengers who do wear masks or are vaccinated. Its boss, one Charlie Bullington, said that he requires customers to verify they had not been vaccinated or had not worn a mask before accepting their fare. Reports that his attempt to join MENSA has thrown the organisation into a tizzy because their application forms don’t include IQs low enough are unconfirmed.

Would-be demagogue Candace Owens has a show with the right-wing media company the Daily Wire; she attracts nearly three million followers on Twitter. They were recently treated to her assertion that the CDC was planning to put some people (presumably the infected) in camps. Then an American ‘priest’ of a fake church (‘Genesis II’) in the United States, one Mark Grenon, is somehow managing to distribute bleach to at least 75 other prisoners from his cell in Colombia.

Egotism

To mature and thoughtful onlookers this state of affairs in the world’s most powerful country may be hard to understand. But let’s be clear: to addicts of this trumpy cult the spread of the virus and the suffering and deaths it causes are less important than their sense of self, their ‘freedom’ to infect and kill others and their annoyance at the advent of the pandemic as something which played a large part in preventing the re-election of the twice-impeached Donald Trump, who also lost all three branches of the government to the Democrats.

Indeed, ‘conservatives’/Republicans/fascists simply cannot conceive that anyone (friend or foe) could see the world in any other way than how they see it. This must go a long way to explaining such moronic tribalism in the face of the most severe public health crisis in a century.

Trumpers and their ilk are out to grab; so must everyone else be. Because they put their greed first so must their political opponents. This accounts for the official Republican line that the climate collapse is a ‘liberal’ plot to deprive them of their worldly goods by seeking unnecessary regulation – of emissions, of waste, of consumption.

The correlation between those states with the fewest number of people vaccinated and those states whose voters decided that Trump was a suitable candidate to run again in 2020 for president is strikingly strong.

As one would expect, it’s in Arizona that there’s an ‘audit’ of election results sponsored by fascist outlet One America News (OAN) and a group of far right Republican Trump addicts. They didn’t like the fact that Trump lost. So – despite numerous court cases confirming the result – the little trumpers are recounting ballots again and again having engaged the ‘help’ of a company with no experiencing in the field. And true to type, in the middle of July Arizona’s trumpy governor, Doug Ducey, joined in the push to spread the virus in Arizona’s schools by having his education adviser, Kaitlin Harrier, write to two school Districts (the equivalent of LEAs in the UK) advising them that they cannot require unvaccinated pupils to either get vaccinated or to quarantine. The number of new cases of Covid 19 in Arizona had doubled in the month before the governor issued his order.

Instances appear almost daily of actions by the Right in all its colours – from underground but overtly fascist to the majority of the public Republican party – which indicate that we’re in for a long and tough struggle. And all it will take for that to become a struggle for very survival is another mutation (bred in the sump which the trumper deniers are augmenting hourly) which is totally resistant to any vaccine.

Next time: other trends and events in the United States.

Louis Further