The Next Election Will Be a Fight over Our Memory of the PandemicRoundup
tags: historical memory, vaccines, COVID-19, 2024 Elections
Jacob Steere-Williams is a professor of the history of medicine at the College of Charleston, where he directs the program in Medical Humanities.
Gavin Yamey is a physician and professor of global health and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.
When Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor and 2024 presidential hopeful, was inaugurated for a second term in February, DeSantis centered his vision for the next four years on the idea that “freedom lives” in the Sunshine State. Baked into DeSantis’ speech was an emerging battle for the public memory of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Over the past few years,” he said, “as so many states in our country grinded their citizens down, we in Florida lifted our people up. When other states consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin, Florida stood strongly as freedom’s linchpin.”
Yet behind this soaring rhetoric of liberty lies a very uncomfortable fact that DeSantis wants us to forget: Florida has been among the worst-performing states when it comes to protecting people from COVID-19 deaths.
As Oliver Johnson, mathematician at the University of Bristol, England, noted last December, if Florida were a country, its COVID-19 death rate would put it at “10th worst in the world, behind Peru and various East European countries that got slammed pre-vaccine.”
It’s true that Florida has a high proportion of older people, who face the greatest risk of death from COVID-19 if infected by the coronavirus, and the state’s performance looks better if its COVID-19 death rate is adjusted for age. And when you examine deaths from all causes (known as “all-cause mortality”) over the full three years of the pandemic, Florida’s performance is only a little worse than that of California. But Florida is doing extremely poorly at vaccinating its most vulnerable citizens. Booster coverage among elderly residents of nursing facilities in Florida is the second lowest among all U.S. states, and general booster rates are among the worst in the nation. These critical public health indexes are unlikely to improve, given DeSantis’s embrace of anti-vaccine rhetoric. Such rhetoric plays well with the conservative base that he needs to excite if he is to beat Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary.
Across the country, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, rumored to be a possible presidential candidate if President Biden doesn’t run for a second term, was also sworn in for a second term. He too campaigned under the rhetorical glint of freedom, upheld by his version of the history of the pandemic; and he too had his own struggles curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In our finest hours,” Newsom boasted, “California has been freedom’s force multiplier. Protecting liberty from a rising tide of oppression taking root in statehouses.” Newsom’s version of freedom includes a protection of reproductive rights, access to health care, and green growth, which he contrasted with the January 6th, 2021 attack on the White House amidst turmoil over pandemic policies. In a statement seemingly hurled directly at DeSantis, Newsom argued that “Red state politicians, and the media empire behind them,” are “selling regression as progress, oppression as freedom.”
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