Usually poison control centers only receive a handful of calls a month related to ivermectin, a livestock dewormer that can cause vomiting, seizures and even deaths. But there has been a surge. A poison control center in Florida received two ivermectin poison calls in March; there have been more than 30 in August. The Texas Poison Center Network received more than 50 poison control calls in August 2021; in all of 2020 it received only 48. Demand for ivermectin is so high that many farmers in states like Iowa can’t find supplies in stores.
People want horse dewormer for the same reason they wanted malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine in 2020. Ivermectin is the latest quack Covid cure on the right, pushed by everyone from Fox media personality Sean Hannity to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. A woman has even taken a hospital to court to force doctors to give it to her husband, who is severely ill with Covid.
In 2020, vaccines weren’t available. You could understand why people were desperate to latch onto any sliver of hope. But now, there are proven, extensively tested vaccines for Covid which have been extremely effective in preventing infection, hospitalization and death. So why on earth would conservatives be rushing out to guzzle sheep dewormer?
It’s tempting to speculate about psychology or mass delusion. But I think the answer is fairly straightforward. Refusing vaccines and embracing alternative treatments has become a mark of Republican identity, like guns, opposing abortion or (more recently) screaming about critical race theory. People take dewormer the way they root for the home team — or, more to the point, the way they root against the hated football rival. If Democrats are getting the vaccine, many Republicans would (literally) rather die than put it in their arm. It’s a social media joke, but it’s also just the truth: Republicans take horse dewormer to own the libs.
It may seem shocking that people would put their political identity ahead of their health or the health of their loved ones. But we’ve seen it happen frequently in the past. The US has a much higher rate of gun deaths than other wealthy countries, about 4.43 per 100,000 people. A significant majority of those deaths — around 25,000 out of 38,000 in 2019 — are suicides or accidents. That means the people most at risk of harm from guns are gun owners. But the GOP continues to block even popular gun control measures, essentially fighting for its constituents’ right to experience more gun deaths. Just as Rand Paul now fights for his constituents’ right to be poisoned by livestock dewormer.
Paul specifically framed his embrace of dewormer in terms of anti-establishment partisanship. He argued that government scientists were refusing to evaluate ivermectin because they were politically opposed to the GOP. “The hatred for Trump deranged these people so much that they’re unwilling to objectively study [ivermectin],” he insisted.
Paul’s call to rally against the government and scientific expertise is a longstanding trope in Republican politics, as political scientists Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris explain in their recent book At War With Government. Stoking fear of government interference and urging people to trust only partisan voices rather than objective news sources has been a powerful way of rallying and energizing the conservative movement. That goes from the fight against integration to the scaremongering about Obamacare “death panels” to a new nadir with Donald Trump’s baseless charges of election fraud in the 2020 elections leading to the January 6 insurrection.
Encouraging mistrust of government, and faith in GOP mistrusters-in-chief, has allowed Republicans “to build political organizations, to win elections, to channel power toward institutions they controlled … and to promote or thwart policy proposals,” Fried and Harris argue. It’s not surprising that they rolled out the same tactic again and have made vaccine refusal a conservative rallying point.
Republicans can scoff at the vaccine, but they can’t quite deny that friends and family members and even leading political voices are catching Covid and dying from it. Since it’s a matter of party loyalty not to get vaccines, they turn elsewhere. Not coincidentally, conservative personalities regularly peddle quack cures to an audience trained to reject information from trustworthy sources. Ben Carson pushed dietary supplements during the 2015 Republican primary debates, and conspiracy theorist and radio personality Alex Jones pushes similar products relentlessly. It’s a small step from there to Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis taking Covid response advice from a proponent of ivermectin.
Presumably the craze for ivermectin will eventually work its way through the Republican intestine and be left behind on the dung heap of conspiracy theories like hydroxychloroquine. Partisanship is a force, but even the most stubborn lib-hater will notice eventually that the sheep medicine is making people sick and not protecting them from anything. But as long as Republicans are committed to a strategy of conspiracy, resentment, and fear, there will always be some other ivermectin for conservatives to swallow. We can’t know for sure what that will be, but it’s a good bet it will be poison.
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