Congressman Don Young, 86, a world-famous non-epidemiologist, apparently learned all he needed to know about infectious diseases from “Doc” Adams on “Gunsmoke.” So maybe his medical education is sketchy and 150 years out of date. Perhaps that is why, less than three weeks ago on March 13, Young told Alaskans not to worry about the COVID-19 pandemic. He said it was nothing but media “hysteria.”
“…They call it a coronavirus,” he said at the Mat-Su Senior Center, openly flouting the CDC rules that he should be self-isolating to prevent infecting others, but “I call it a beer virus.” The prescription from the Beer Doctor was “go forth with our everyday activities,” because he said the media had invented the danger. “This is blown out of proportion about how deadly this is,” he said. “It’s deadly but it’s not nearly as deadly as the other viruses we have … I call it the hysteria concept.”
Young has since tried backtracking from the “beer virus” verdict, claiming inexplicably that he could not have known at the time what was going on. This is nonsense. Two days before he isolated Corona beer as the source of the pandemic — which he claimed did not exist — Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a public health emergency disaster for Alaska, and the day before his medical discovery, the first case of COVID-19 appeared in Anchorage. But the larger import is that Young’s “beer virus” claim was merely echoing the reality denial of President Donald Trump and many in the Republican Party for the previous six weeks. They were all on the “beer virus” bandwagon, dismissing the pandemic; it just didn’t have a name until Don Young came along.
Trump now claims that he never downplayed the coronavirus threat, except a massive public record to the contrary proves he is either lying or becoming more forgetful. (Maybe the beer virus accentuates memory loss.) Between late January and early March he was twittering away, claiming it was the best of all possible worlds. On January 22, the day after the first case appeared in the United States, Trump said: “We have it totally under control ... It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
Even though secret intelligence briefings as early as January warned of the dire situation, Trump continued to maintain there was nothing to cause any concern. Some loyalists are now claiming that Trump neglected to prepare for the pandemic because he was distracted during these crucial weeks by the impeachment proceedings — as if that were a sound excuse for a President to neglect his duty. Trump repeatedly dismissed the dangers of COVID-19 as it began to spread and ignored the best medical advice. Cheered on by Fox News, Trump and many in the GOP adopted the hooplehead hypothesis that the danger of COVID-19 was just a Democratic hoax. After shutting off flights to China, Trump decided his work was done, and promised the “foreign virus” would be no threat to North America. His complacency set the tune for the lackluster federal and disjointed state responses that continues to the present day.
Part of the administration’s war on reality has been the repeated denial of science, ignoring evidence and continually dismissing the inconvenient advice of physicians and epidemiologists in favor of the wisdom of talk show hosts and political gasbags, who wouldn’t know the difference between a germ and a German. At the moment evidence of such foolishness and the U.S. lack of preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic is everywhere. The dismal record of testing, the incompetence of federal assistance and the shortages of swabs, masks, gowns, ICU hospital beds, ventilators, etc. are a national disgrace without parallel in American history. The advance planning that should have been done was neglected, and in many respects, it is too late now.
A pandemic affords no one the option of reality denial and scientific ignorance. We need enlightened and humble officials willing to heed the scientists, physicians, nurses, and researchers on the front lines. And millions of Americans are taking the health mandates and the advice of the medical community seriously, staying at home, self-quarantining, social distancing and hand washing, and if enough do that, we’ll be less at the mercy of incompetent politicians.
Don Young will probably go down in history as the poster boy for COVID-19 ignorance and arrogance, but that is not completely fair. From the President on down, there are too many politicians and political ideologues to count who belong there with him.
Terrence Cole is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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