Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is not stupid. However, he is ambitious and extremely cynical. So when he says things that sound stupid, it is worth asking why. And his recent statements on Covid-19 help us understand why so many Americans still die from the disease or become seriously ill.
The background to this is the looming public health disaster in Florida.
We now have highly effective vaccines that are available free of charge to any American 12 or older. There has been a lot of hype about “breakthrough” infections related to the Delta variant, but they remain rare and serious illnesses are even rarer among those vaccinated. There is no good reason why we should still be suffering severely from this pandemic.
But Florida is in the grip of a Covid surge worse than it was before the vaccines. More than 10,000 Florida residents are hospitalized, about ten times as many as New York, which has about that population; an average of 58 Florida residents die each day, compared to six in New York. And the Florida hospital system is under extreme stress.
There is no secret why this happened. At every stage of the pandemic, DeSantis has acted effectively as an ally of the coronavirus, such as issuing orders preventing companies from requiring proof of vaccination from their customers and schools from requiring masks. In general, he has helped create a state of mind in which vaccine skepticism flourishes and refusal to take precautionary measures is normalized.
A technical note: Florida’s vaccination rate is well below the Northeast, but is in line with the national average. But seniors are vaccinated far more often than younger Americans, in Florida as elsewhere; and Florida, of course, has an unusually high number of seniors. For the younger groups, the state lags behind the nation as a whole and even further behind the blue states.
Given these dire developments, one would have expected, or at least hoped, that DeSantis would reconsider its position. In fact, he made excuses – it’s all about the air conditioning! He has claimed that any new restrictions would incur unacceptable costs to the economy – although Florida’s recent accomplishment looks terrible when it comes to human life.
Above all, he plays the card of the liberal conspiracy theory with donation letters in which he declares that the “radical left” is “coming for your freedom”.
So let’s talk about what the law means when it speaks of “freedom”. Since the pandemic began, many conservatives have insisted that measures to limit the death toll – social distancing, wearing a mask, and now vaccination – should be a personal choice. Does this position make sense?
Well, driving drunk is also a personal choice. But almost everyone understands that it is a personal choice that puts others at risk; 97 percent of the population consider alcohol-restricted driving to be a serious problem. Why don’t we have the same unanimity in refusing to be vaccinated, a decision that will help perpetuate the pandemic and put others at risk?
It is true that many people doubt science; The link between vaccination refusals and Covid deaths is just as real as the link between DUI and road deaths, but less obvious to the naked eye. But why are the people on the right so susceptible to misinformation on the subject and so angry at the efforts to get it right?
My answer is that when people on the right speak of “freedom” what they really mean is more like “defense of privilege” – especially the right of certain people (generally white male Christians) to do whatever they want.
Not by chance, if you go back to the roots of modern conservatism, you will find people like Barry Goldwater defending corporations’ right to discriminate against black Americans. In the name of freedom, of course. Much, if not all, of the recent “abandon culture” panic revolves around protecting the right of powerful men to abuse women. Etc.
Once you understand that the rhetoric of freedom is actually about privilege, things that on the surface look like gross inconsistency and hypocrisy will make sense.
For example, why do conservatives insist so strongly on the right of companies to make their own decisions free of regulation – but are quick to discourage customers who refuse to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination from refusing service? Why is local school district autonomy a fundamental principle – unless they want to require masks or teach America’s racial history? It’s all about whose privileges are protected.
The reality of what the law understands by freedom also explains, in my opinion, the peculiar anger caused by rules that impose some minor inconveniences in the name of the public interest – like the detergent wars a few years ago. After all, only poor people and minorities should be asked for sacrifices.
Anyway, when you see DeSantis invoking “freedom” to avoid responsibility for his Covid disaster, remember, when he says it, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means .