Clay Wirestone: Progressives beware: Don’t let values become casualties of the pandemic (Column)

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The transition from summer to fall has been a challenging one for those of us with a progressive bent. Many of us feel fed up with the pace of our battle against COVID-19. Many of us blame those who refuse to get vaccinated or take basic safety precautions.

You could watch the frustration seep through in President Joe Biden’s speech last week. Commentary on Twitter was immediate: Dad was turning the car around. The commander in chief had had enough. 

“What makes it incredibly more frustrating is that we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans — supported by a distinct minority of elected officials — are keeping us from turning the corner,” Biden said.

But he was only the most prominent example of a trend. Good-natured talk show host Jimmy Kimmel suggested that hospitals not treat people who decided against vaccination. Delta Airlines announced it would charge employees who didn’t get vaccinated an extra $200 per month on their health insurance. News outlet after news outlet pumped out stories about the hospitalized unvaccinated, struggling to breathe and regretting their choices.

The frustration makes sense. I sympathize with the anger. But during this virus-riddled time, we can’t allow the pandemic to melt our minds.

We should not want people who disagree with us — even if that disagreement takes the form of refusing a vaccine or mask — to forgo health insurance or medical care. We should not want them to suffer, even if we feel the temptation. And we should be exceptionally cautious about translating frustration into policy. It’s a short leap from making health insurance more expensive for an anti-vaxxer to making it unaffordable for someone with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or obesity. It’s a short leap from doctors refusing to treat unvaccinated patients to doctors turning away gay, lesbian or transgender patients.

Folks on the right have a history of excluding or denigrating people of different genders, colors, religions or sexual orientations. Extreme supporters of former President Donald Trump have turned that exclusion into a white nationalist cause. This past and present has created an enduring young voter problem for conservatives. No one should be eager to replicate that strategy.

We support progressive causes for a reason: They’re good for everybody. That means Republicans, Democrats, independents, anti-vaxxers and vaccine scientists alike. (Yes, the wealthy may pay more in taxes, but those funds will go to strengthen the country as a whole.) When we forget the motivations behind greater equality and stronger social programs, we forfeit any moral high ground and might as well hand the keys over to our ideological opponents.

I’m not exonerating our leaders. The political figures I dubbed the “disinformation caucus” a couple of weeks ago bear heavy responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in. I’m not forgiving viral news media outlets that spread science fiction posing as science fact. We should all demand accountability from public figures. But we should not wish harm on anyone.

Strengthening society

Kansas desperately needs an expanded Medicaid program. But we are a red state, which means that many of those covered under the program would presumably be conservative. Perhaps they’re socialists or libertarians or luddites. That’s OK! No one in their right mind would propose that only progressives qualify.

Expanding Medicaid helps Kansas precisely because it helps a broad swath of our population. It will help those in rural and urban areas. It will help men and women. It will help our families and friends, hospitals and communities. That help, in turn, strengthens our entire society — even the folks who don’t use the program.

Remember Ayn Rand.

The objectivist philosopher and author of unreadable doorstops was outspoken in her disdain of government benefits. Yet she used Social Security and Medicare. While it’s easy to make fun of her for that, the program was and is meant to help everyone of retirement age. (To make herself feel better, Rand seems to have regarded the payments as restitution for prior tax payments.)

No simple answers

We do face a truly tough choice. Hospital capacity. If COVID-19 positive patients take up every ICU bed in a facility, what kind of harm could that do to other people — including vaccinated people — who aren’t able to access care? An Alabama cardiac patient, for example, was turned away from 43 facilities because they didn’t have space. Ray DeMonia later died in a Mississippi hospital more than 200 miles away from his home.

There are no simple answers here. Those running hospitals are making difficult decisions daily. Those refusing vaccines will have to decide if their conscience can handle the burden. But I can’t accept that excluding our fellow human beings, regardless of their short-sightedness, is a workable solution. We shouldn’t even wish to do so.

The long-term solutions remain the same. Vaccines, masks, testing, distancing and following basic public health advice. Did I mention vaccines already? They are the way out, for progressives and conservatives alike. Because while we shouldn’t ration care based on beliefs, the virus won’t discriminate either.

Perhaps government-issued mandates will end the pandemic more quickly. I hope so. But in the meantime, we can’t allow our frustration to overwhelm our humanity.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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