Years after the United States elected a president with the motto “America First,” we just pulled ahead in a race no one wants to win: the most deaths from the novel coronavirus. In order to limit casualties from a catastrophic second wave, states have enacted measures of differing severity, from shutting down some businesses to move severe “shelter in place” orders mandating citizens stay in their homes.
However, months into this disruption, some restless Americans are looking for a way out — and there are Republican politicians eager to placate them. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky bemoaned the “lack of commerce” on Twitter and threw his support behind “re-opening” the economy. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is way ahead of him, announcing plans to lift restrictions on businesses from bowling alleys to hair salons amidst widespread pushback in his own state. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick of Texas skipped the subtext and went straight to the point with the breathtaking assertion that “there are more important things than living,” a statement that presumably doesn’t include himself or his loved ones.
It’s puzzling how these politicians think “re-opening” will lead to business as usual with an unpredictable contagion floating around. Commerce relies on consumers, and if a majority of those consumers are rightfully afraid for themselves and their families, how exactly is the government supposed to put things back to pre-pandemic levels without forcing us to go to the mall on pain of arrest?
Even if they just intend to let those who don’t care about the risks shop, go to work and pretend everything is normal, there’s a very real danger that way more Americans will die as a result. But according to Lt. Gov. Patrick, it’s a justifiable sacrifice for the good of the nation’s GDP.
This is fascinating coming from a party that has long labeled itself as “pro-life” over the years — when it suits them. Let’s look at one of the most extreme examples: Terri Schiavo, a woman whose private medical battle became a tool for the Republican party during the early 2000s. After a Florida trial court concluded that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state and would have wanted the feeding tube keeping her alive to be removed, Republicans at all levels became involved. Governor Jeb Bush pulled in everyone from his brother in the White House to the United States Congress to unsuccessfully fight the trial court’s order for years. It would seem to a casual observer that this was a political party that would stop at nothing to save a life.
This wasn’t the first time Republicans (or the Bushes) were performatively “pro-life.” During his first year in office President George W. Bush severely limited federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cells, giving evangelical conservatives an important win. Bush continued to oppose bills to loosen these restrictions, citing concerns that taxpayers would be funding the destruction of potential life. Again, if you didn’t know anything else about the GOP you would think that their concerns were so pure as to encompass cells that could become a human being someday.
This stated concern for life didn’t stop with the Bush brothers. Republicans took a stand during debates surrounding President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. This proposed legislation aimed to increase the amount of people with health insurance (which is positively correlated with life preservation). However, former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin asserted repeatedly that the law would lead to “death panels” that would decide whether elderly Americans would live or die. Inspired by Palin, the right painted a dystopian picture of a future where liberal judges would decide grandma’s fate. A decade later and pearl-clutching at treatment of older Americans has taken a turn since they are inconveniently deemed to be more at risk of dying of Covid-19. Now the elderly, it seems, are at best inessential to public life and, at worst, expendable sacrifices to the gods of capitalism.
Here is what’s revealing in each of those episodes: championing the life of Terri Schiavo, or the potential life of stem cells, or the imaginary life of a condemned grandma didn’t cost Republicans a nickel. But the people who would potentially die if “re-opening” measures are scaled back are expensive. They’re also inconvenient for the party’s narratives. They include the medical workers who counter-protest the Confederate flag-wavers who want to be able to get a haircut. They are immigrants who risk their lives to provide you with food. They are, disproportionately, black, indicative of the virulent racism in our country.
Championing their lives means economic sacrifice with no legislative gain. That is, apparently, a bridge too far.
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