A Whitmer-DeSantis Showdown Would Put Two Visions of Public Health on the BallotRoundup
tags: public health, pandemic, COVID-19, Gretchen Whitmer, Ron DeSantis
Andrew Wehrman is associate professor of history at Central Michigan University and author of the new book The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).
Two governors scored smashing reelection victories by double-digit margins in swing states in the midterm elections, igniting presidential buzz. Their opposite approaches to handling covid-19 tells us of the very different approaches to public health and social services that they would deliver as national leaders.
Perhaps more than any other governor, Florida’s Ron DeSantis (R) openly derided public efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and called vaccination a “personal choice.” Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer (D) did the opposite, enacting strict public health measures and imploring Michiganders to “get through this together” to slow the virus’s spread.
The divide between Whitmer and DeSantis is nothing new. Instead, they are continuing a debate about public health and private freedoms that goes back to the founding era. Their responses reflect long-standing regional differences in Americans’ desire for government interventions in times of crisis. The South, in particular, has long been hostile to strong public health measures, just as DeSantis is.
Like leaders today, the founders also dealt with a pandemic: smallpox. Like covid, the smallpox pandemic of the 1770s affected all 13 colonies during the American Revolution. But the responses from political leaders in New England to control the pandemic and satisfy their angry and fearful fellow citizens differed dramatically from those in Virginia.
Smallpox was a not a new disease to Americans in 1776. The distinctive pockmarks it inflicted on victims and its high mortality rate — before the discovery of germ theory, antibiotics and IV fluids — were enough to convince Americans that no one should want to experience smallpox.
Whereas smallpox was endemic in large European cities, the colonists were adamant that smallpox not be allowed to gain a permanent foothold here. They used strict quarantines to stop the spread of the disease and enacted harsh penalties for anyone who violated them. Many communities required anyone with smallpox symptoms to report them to authorities so that they could be isolated, with stiff fines for violating such orders.
By the American Revolution, the surest way to prevent smallpox was by inoculation — the purposeful insertion of matter taken from a smallpox pustule and inserted into a small incision on a patient’s arm. The patient would usually develop a mild, survivable case of smallpox yielding them lifetime immunity but would remain infectious for several weeks. This required strict isolation to prevent spreading smallpox to others. When smallpox broke out again during the Revolutionary War, the colonies understandably pushed to expand inoculation.
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