Commentary

Don’t entrust pandemic response to lawmakers who aren’t taking it seriously

February 9, 2021 12:20 am

Medical staff tend to a COVID-19 patient. Courtesy of University Hospitals

Snowflakes, misinformation, conspiracy theories, serial abuse of constitutional theory — all were on depressing display last week in an Ohio Senate committee hearing on a recently introduced bill that would allow state lawmakers to strike down executive or emergency health orders issued by the governor.

The Feb. 3 public hearing on S.B. 22 featured many heartbreaking tales of the travails experienced by Ohioans as a result of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone submitting or providing testimony chose to blame Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and state Department of Health restrictions intended to safeguard citizens’ health, rather than blaming the pandemic itself. That’s sort of like blaming the death and destruction from Nazi bombers on the air-raid wardens who were enforcing blackout rules during the London Blitz.

The Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee hearing featured a dozen or so supporters of the legislation giving oral testimony, among some 200 proponents who provided written testimony. Only one of those who testified was wearing a mask.

The extensive oral and written testimony included some noteworthy profiles in inconvenience and entitled whininess:

  • A woman distraught that her favorite gluten-free bakery had to close last year, separating her from its pizza, pecan pie and “cheesy bread with the best freshly made marinara sauce I’ve ever tasted.”
  • A Cleveland man lamenting no longer being able to listen to bands perform at an outdoor stage within hearing distance of his apartment window, as a result of the mayor issuing an ordinance requiring face coverings. In his written testimony, the man alleged that Gov. Mike DeWine’s “fear mongering” had helped terminate his marriage.
  • A Plain City man whose shopping trips have become prohibitively stressful because he has “to mentally and physically prepare to defend my reasons for not wearing a mask” and suffer through people yelling and berating him for the same.

Let’s juxtapose these heart-rending tales of woe with the heroic accounts of Americans who persevered through previous national crises, sacrificing the basics of civilized life and security, including a cataclysmic Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

Imagine a similar legislative hearing in 1932, amid the continuing human and economic devastation of the Depression, with witnesses complaining of the sort of trivialities on display last Wednesday in the Ohio Senate hearing room.

“My cheesy bread!”

“I’ve got to talk louder!”

“People will yell at me.”

Twenty years from now, conjure up Grandpa Buckeye, a tear in his eye, telling his rapt grandkids about the privations of 2020-21. “You know, for a whole year, I couldn’t hear bands playing on the stage down the block. Can you imagine?!”

Of course, the real heroism of this eternal pandemic will be less about the simple precautions that Americans have been asked to take in their everyday lives, and more about the ultimate sacrifice made by each of the 470,000-plus Americans (11,659 Ohioans) as of Feb. 8 who have died of COVID-19, and the soul-shattering grief of their friends and family.

Tales of hard times extend to the uncounted businesses that have gone belly-up or contracted as a result of the pandemic, and the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs and the pain and suffering this has inflicted on their families. Add to that the life-or-death risks faced by frontline health care and retail workers across the country, or the unprecedented challenges faced by millions of parents, their children, and teachers and caregivers.

Many of these people were represented in the proponent testimony for S.B. 22 on Feb. 3.

Yet, blaming state public-health orders for the economic and social ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic seems perverse when one considers the purpose of mandates on social distancing, face coverings, stay-at-home orders, etc. Mounting medical evidence, reinforced by what has worked in other countries, strongly suggests that these public-health orders, if followed and enforced both statewide and nationally, will help us put the pandemic behind us, allowing some degree of normalcy to return. At the very least they are slowing the spread of infection while more people get vaccinated.

That means fewer hospitalizations, fewer deaths, fewer businesses closing, fewer Ohioans laid off, and fewer health care workers, teachers and frontline retail employees risking their lives.

It’s as simple as 2 + 2 = 4, though that’s the sort of obvious calculus that in Ohio escapes a Republican Party that remains in the thrall of the biggest COVID-denier of them all, twice-impeached Donald J. Trump. Indeed, the Ohio House speaker on Feb. 3 reappointed as chair of the House Health Committee a representative who has made statements advocating stopping or slowing the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, and who has sucked up to anti-vaxxer groups who appear unconcerned about the ever-mounting costs and casualties of this global health crisis.

This comes at a time when millions of Ohioans are desperately seeking appointments for their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and a successful vaccine roll-out remains the only serious hope for corralling, if not ending, the pandemic. Consider the supreme irony of anti-vaccine groups joining support for S.B. 22, when a successful COVID-19 vaccine effort will address every one of the complaints voiced at last week’s hearing. Not to mention, injecting as many as vaccines as possible, as soon as possible, will provide some protection from rapidly spreading virus variants.

The massive vaccine campaign under way in this country absolutely requires aggressive coordination and management from the states. In Ohio, unfortunately, firm, responsible leadership will evaporate if and when the legislature highjacks that authority.

That couldn’t have been more apparent than at the hearing for S.B. 22 on Feb. 3. The indoor hearing room reportedly was filled with between 25 and 35 supporters of the legislation, hardly any of them wearing masks or maintaining social distance, per the Republican leadership’s lax rules and enforcement. The idea that a GOP majority in the General Assembly would responsibly safeguard the health of Ohioans, when they won’t even enforce the most basic health safeguards in their own proceedings, should be evidence enough that this attempted power grab has nothing to do with public health.

S.B. 22 SEEKS TO CREATE A NEW legislative committee that could revoke Ohio Department of Health orders by a majority vote. It seeks to grant the General Assembly the authority to rescind executive orders, including emergency declarations by the governor, among other limiting actions.

In their written and oral testimony, supporter after supporter of S.B. 22 downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, and repeated common lies discounting its well-documented destructive and deadly impacts on the people of Ohio and elsewhere. Some repeated dismissive ideas about mask wearing that were conclusively disproved early in the pandemic, as well as the roundly debunked notion that COVID-19 is “no worse than the flu.”

If Republicans in the Ohio House succeed in this effort to cripple the state’s ability to fight the most serious public health crisis in a century, I’m afraid Grandpa Buckeye will have a far more tragic story to tell the grandkids:

“Yep, Ohio started out pretty good in taking action to defeat COVID-19, but the numbskulls in the Legislature — driven to act by annoyance over minor inconveniences, whiny entitlement, and a mountain of misinformation — took over the battle in early ’21 and promptly surrendered. That’s one of the reasons we now call it the Great Pandemic of 2020-23. Your dear grandma could have told you some of her stories about living through the pandemic but it killed her in ’22.”

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Terry Smith
Terry Smith

Terry Smith in May 2020 left The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio, after editing that award-winning publication for 34 years. His columns and editorials have placed first in the Ohio News Media Association’s annual weekly newspaper awards in recent years. Before returning to Athens and his alma mater, Ohio University, in 1986, Smith reported for newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia. He is currently freelance editing and writing from his home in Athens.

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