A Seventh Flag Over Texas

After vaccinating 7% of Texans and with coronavirus variants looming, Governor Abbott declares victory.

With Governor Greg Abbott this week declaring Texas “100% open for business” during the continuing pandemic, “the Six Flags over Texas” has hoisted a seventh, the Flag of Truculent Stupidity.

As of this writing, a mere 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated, and the state ranks 48th in getting the vaccine into people’s arms. Three known coronavirus variants— B.1.1.7 (first seen in the U.K.), B.1.351 (South Africa), and P.1 (Brazil)—are faster spreaders, likely more deadly, and making their presence known in the United States, along with new variants now emerging here.

So, is the governor celebrating something?

After declaring the state fully open for business, Abbott tweeted it, and as if for good measure proclaimed that the state’s mask mandate was also a thing of the past.

Well, what can one say? Yee-haw, pardner?

Saying he hopes people ignore their governor, Austin Mayor Steve Alder (D), in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” responded, “At the very beginning of this process he told us he would be guided by the science and the data. He’s now broken that promise. The science and the data are clear, and now it is up to us.” The mayor noted that, among other problems caused by this premature decision, small businesses that want to continue to protect their essential workers will have a much harder time doing so if people are told masks are no longer mandated.

When it comes to supporting essential workers and small businesses during the pandemic, Abbott and nearly all his GOP cowboy brethren have been, as they say round those parts, all hat and no cattle. The cowboy may stand for the mythic individualist going his own way in America, but in stories and movies some of them wore white hats and, you know, helped save towns. When their town is threatened these days GOP cowboys buck their responsibilities and slip out of town.

With the FDA’s approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot and which can travel much easier, things are looking up. Behind the scenes, the Biden administration cajoled Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky to partner with Merck to produce more of it quickly, and Biden is using the Defense Production Act to help Merck retool. As a result, the president now says there should be enough vaccine for all Americans by the end of May, two months earlier than his previous estimate.

But getting the vaccines into arms is still up to the decision making in individual states, often influenced by seemingly rote ideological mental machinations of individual governors. The rate of infections stopped dropping in late February, and the situation is as bad as in the summer, when we realized that things were very bad indeed. The variants have arrived and are digging in. New ones popping up. The hope now is that we can vaccinate enough people globally to get ahead of the known variants and slow the evolution of others.

In response to Abbott’s irresponsible move, Biden rightly (and memorably) called doing away with COVID regulations now “Neanderthal thinking.”

The devastating influenza pandemic of 1918 occurred just over a century ago, so it is understandable that people might not take lessons from that experience. But time and again we have seen our leaders, governors and mayors, relax guidelines and open up businesses just as the guidelines begin to succeed and drive down the infection and death rates.

One can easily get a sense of just how awful the United States has done to date with fighting this pandemic by comparing deaths resulting from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21 with what happened in 1918-20.

According to the CDC, the “Spanish Flu” (actually an avian flu) killed an estimated 50 million globally, including 675,000 Americans. Today, the United States is on track to see, by June 1, the deaths of 574,000 of our citizens while globally deaths are on track to reach 3.7 million on that date.

So, a century ago, with no vaccines or antibiotics or therapeutic medicines to fight the flu, the world lost 50 million people, and the United States’ share of that immense loss was only 1.35%. In our current pandemic, with all the benefits of medical science on our side and supposedly the best healthcare system in the world, and about 4% of the world’s population, our share of the COVID-19 deaths globally is a staggering 15.5%.

Another way to look at it is that even with all the benefits we have today, we managed to so un-manage our response—by acting too slowly, by pitting state against state for masks and other PPE, by fantasizing about the virus going away, by disputing what health experts were saying, by politicizing the wearing of masks, by turning the whole critically serious public health business into some surreal dystopian circus—that we will certainly lose nearly as many people to this pandemic as we did a century ago. Globally only 7.4% as many people have died of COVID-19 as died as a result of the 1918 influenza.

And that number, of course, would be even better if they didn’t have to count us.

The remarkably shoddy health of the U.S. population today—perhaps especially in terms of obesity—is a potent factor. (Brenden, a cousin once removed—and I guess thrice removed by the pandemic and the fact he lives up in Chicago—recently mordantly quipped that a gym mandate might be almost as important as a mask mandate.) Demographic changes, including urbanization and increased longevity, also make it much harder to manage a pandemic today than it was a century ago.

Still, over the past century, science got a whole lot smarter and communication channels and distribution chains became much faster. What happened is that we as a people, encouraged to do so by politicians of a party with a mascot that, ironically, is supposed to “never forget,” got a whole lot stupider—and, yes, more crowded and less healthy in general. And since 1987, when during the Reagan presidency the FCC dispensed with the Fairness Doctrine, we have had an ever-worsening problem with our communication channels spewing out misinformation and astonishing claptrap about such things as stolen elections, voter fraud, the economic horrors entailed with ensuring people who work full time receive even a barely living wage.

Nearly half the U.S. population may be obese, but a frightening number of minds also seem bloated with racism often disguised within faux religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and cult movements. Will the DSM get to labelling the increasing mental degradation process that comes from waving the Confederate flag and the Trump flag and the QAnon flag and the poor misunderstood Gadsden flag and ensuring the Constitution is treated like a fossil and living almost entirely in the past? The American Association of Psychiatry ought to step up with an appropriate label so the media can come to terms with the phenomenon. It’s clearly a dangerous progressive mental disease, causing some to even try to bring down a nation. Maybe Troll Derangement Complex or lol Syndrome?

Like voting rights, public health should never be left to the whims of a governor. Where I sit in Missouri, we are currently 45th among states in terms of our vaccinations, with a governor, Mike Parson (R), who was never meaningfully supportive of masks and who critics have charged with distributing vastly more of the available vaccines to rural counties he won in the election—places where a hefty portion of the population never wore masks and do not plan to take the vaccine. Many people who qualify for the vaccine in St. Louis and Kansas City are still traveling to rural areas, sometimes hundreds of miles, to receive their doses.

Speaking of the global response, it is well worth your while to listen to the New York Times’  podcast “The Daily” for March 2 , when Times reporters Meghan Twohey and Nicholas Kulish discussed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s work funding the global vaccine distribution network COVAX. In the discussion, many interesting comments are made (including Twohey’s alluding to the “Bill Chill” phenomenon), but there is one humorous moment that stood out to me, when Dr. Anthony Fauci is invited, along with a group of international vaccine scientists, to the Gates mansion in Medina, Washington, and he misses out on the house tour:

“Melinda was showing everyone on a tour of the house. And he [Bill] said, ‘Can I have some time with you in my library?’—this amazingly beautiful library. I kind of wanted to see the tour of the house, because I thought, it’s a neat house. But so we went into his library. And we sat down. And it was there that he said ‘Tony, you run the biggest infectious disease institute of the world. And I want to be sure the money I spent is well spent.’”

As the Gates Foundation helps distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to poorer countries around the world, perhaps we could learn how to more equitably distribute the vaccine among our own states and our own at-risk communities. We could learn best practices from states, like West Virginia and Alaska, who did very well in getting the vaccine to people quickly. Both states had existing vaccine networks—Alaska’s specifically because there is a cultural memory of how devastating the 1918 pandemic was.

And the relentless disinformation campaign about the coronavirus and the vaccines by some on the right is not helping with the effort. As noted by Jill Lepore, in her These Truths, a History of the United States, Walter Lippmann noted, in a book he wrote in 1922, that democracy depended on truth, but that people did not have time enough to read and pull together the semblance of truth when they were too busy trying to scrape a living together:

“The best hope for mass democracy might have seemed to be the scrupulously and unfailingly honest reporting of news, but this, Lippmann thought, was doomed to fall short, because of the gap between facts and truth. Reporters chronicle events, offering facts, but ‘they cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and eruptions,’ he said. To govern, the people need truth, sense out of the whole, but people can’t read enough in the morning paper or hear enough on the evening news to turn facts into truth when they are driven like dray horses all day.”

I love that quote. They should break that down in journalism school. And it speaks to so much today, including the need for the COVID-19 relief bill and increasing the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour. Lippmann was writing in a time when reasonable factual news standards were still intact. How can citizens “make sense out of the whole” when many are working two jobs and Fox News and Newsmax and OANN, and their trolls on social media, are working nonstop to muddy all waters?

While there are numerous valid concerns about how much influence individuals like Bill and Melinda Gates should have on public health policy, in the case of vaccinations they are certainly not the enemy. They have invested hundreds of millions in the effort to create vaccines, and they have done much to support the global distribution network for testing, treatment, and vaccines for coronavirus.

Those friendly folks, from your own pals to your down-home governors, who advise you that you don’t need to bother to wear a mask—that it’s okay now to choose yourself—may not be your active enemies, but they are certainly not your friends.

As for that Truculent Stupidity Flag—it could include the shape of the QAnon Shaman guy. (For Texas, it could read Bar-b-QAnon.) What else? The white power “OK” sign? Maybe a simple canton of brick and a field of rock would do, with a motto SHED ON ME? Seeing that it shouldn’t belong to just one state, perhaps it should also contain the shapes of some fellow states, like Mississippi, that appear determined to kill more of their citizens through ideological blindness and sheer ineptitude.