Sometimes fighting a common enemy can unite a country, inspiring solidarity, bravery, and sacrifice. Ordinary citizens become heroes; leaders become icons. But sometimes—like in the United States right now—a common enemy wins by exploiting divisions.
As the US faced down a global viral threat two years ago, its people and leaders couldn’t seem more factious and impotent against a shared foe. Most Americans seemed to embrace the evolving consensus of public health experts, heeding advice to follow basic and simple measures, like getting a safe and effective vaccine and wearing a mask. These measures might otherwise seem uncontroversial and like minor inconveniences. A vocal minority of Americans, however, leaned hard in the opposite direction, claiming that joining the fight against a deadly enemy infringed on their freedom—as if the US Constitution enshrined the right to freely spread disease and suffering to family, friends, and fellow Americans.
Two years later, the US has tallied nearly 80 million cases. Nearly 960,000 people—grandparents, parents, siblings, children, infants, precious loved ones all—are dead. Nine hundred and sixty thousand. It’s an unfathomable loss—a toll one might at least hope would stir reconsideration in those not fighting for the greater good. Yet, here we are two years and nearly 1 million deaths later, and many have not changed their positions. Some Americans still deny the devastating realities of the pandemic. Some spread dangerous misinformation, twist facts, and squabble over trivial points as lives hang in the balance.
And some leaders are guilty of far worse. Instead of rising to the occasion, bridging divides and trying to save the lives of their people, they’ve sought personal and political gain by capitalizing on divisiveness and endangering their constituents.
One of the most prominent examples of this is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Throughout the pandemic, the Republican has pulled stunt after stunt to score political points, pandering to a base that eschews the moral and social responsibility to help protect the health and safety of those around them. DeSantis has fought or hindered masking, vaccine uptake, and physical distancing. He enabled the spread of the dangerous falsehood that a life-saving vaccine against COVID-19 “changes your RNA.” He withheld funding to schools who chose to require masks. He publicly scolded and bullied high school students for wearing them, calling it “theater.” And last September, he appointed Joseph Ladapo as the state’s surgeon general. Dr. Ladapo is skeptical of vaccines, opposes masking, downplayed COVID-19, and promoted unproven COVID-19 treatments, such as ivermectin and ineffective monoclonal antibodies.
As the body count mounts, DeSantis has only grown bolder. On Monday, he trotted out his latest anti-health antic: a roundtable discussion with fringe members of the health and science communities. DeSantis’ guests included Robert Malone, an anti-vaccine advocate who falsely claims he invented mRNA vaccines; Tracy Høeg, who uses her sports medicine credentials to downplay the pandemic; and health economist Jay Bhattacharya, who is a proponent of letting the pandemic coronavirus spread. In fact, the roundtable contained several prominent signatories of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, including Bhattacharya. The document, prepared by a libertarian think tank in 2020, pushes the false idea that COVID-19 is not a grave threat to public health and thus the virus should be allowed to spread in order for the population to achieve herd immunity.
At the time, the director-general of the World Health Organization called the idea of allowing a dangerous virus to spread freely “simply unethical” because it “means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering, and death.”
On Monday, it was clear from the outset that DeSantis’ roundtable was nothing more than the governor’s latest effort to rattle the health community and his political opponents. At the outset, DeSantis joked that “the good thing about having Joe [Ladapo] as surgeon general: I really don’t have to supervise his daily activities. If CNN is attacking him, I know he’s doing the right thing, and so I can just use that as my barometer.”
After more than an hour of fringe talking points, Ladapo concluded with the announcement that “the Florida department of health is going to be the first state to officially recommend against the COVID-19 vaccines for healthy children.”
The recommendation, of course, contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends everyone ages 5 and up get a COVID-19 vaccine. (Vaccines for children under five are still under testing in clinical trials). Though children are at less risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 than adults, they are still susceptible to infection, severe disease, hospitalization, and death. They can also transmit the virus on to others.
In a statement Tuesday, the President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Daniel McQuillen, called Florida’s recommendation “disturbing.” He wrote:
The Infectious Diseases Society of America strongly opposes the state of Florida’s decision to put politics over the health and safety of children. The Florida Surgeon General’s decision to recommend against COVID-19 vaccination for healthy children flies in the face of the best medical guidance and only serves to further sow distrust in vaccines that have proven to be the safest, most effective defense against severe COVID-19 disease, hospitalization and death. … Pediatric vaccines are one of the great public health achievements of our time. They keep children from getting sick and dying from not only COVID-19, but also diseases such as measles, tetanus, whooping cough and rotavirus. Vaccinating eligible children against COVID-19 not only protects them, but it also protects their classmates, friends and vulnerable family members from a virus that has left nearly one million people in the United States dead in its two-year wake.
Over 115,000 children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 during the pandemic and 1,567 have died, according to CDC data. There have also been 7,459 cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a severe condition linked to COVID-19. Of those cases, 63 were fatal.
Uptake of COVID-19 vaccines for children has already been sluggish, and Florida’s contrarian take will only add to confusion and doubt about vaccination. In other words, it’s another win for our common enemy.