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Officials Take Credit When Pandemic Ebbs, Blame the People For Surges – Commentary

By Tom Gantert

Lansing State Journal sports columnist Graham Couch lectured readers in November 2020 about not doing enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Too many of our neighbors and family members are still resisting reality as COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations soar across Michigan,” Couch wrote last fall.

He went as far as to blame COVID-19 deaths on the state Legislature.

“Enough. Whether it’s your own brother or the state senate majority leader, it’s time to stop shrugging off foolish and dangerous behavior. They’re not an opposing opinion. It’s all bull. It’s either based on callousness or ignorance and it deserves to be countered and shamed relentlessly until even those without shame begin to feel it. We’re beyond toleration,” Couch wrote.

But on April 11, Couch tweeted he had contracted the illness, seeming to adopt a different tone.

“No idea where I was exposed,” Couch tweeted. “I’ve been pretty careful. But as the doctor said after my COVID tests, ‘It’s everywhere right now.’”

The lesson here — that Michigan residents shouldn’t be blamed or shamed for contracting a highly contagious illness — seems a difficult one to learn for some in government and the media.

Government officials have persistently set the tone by blaming residents for letting their guard down or not taking the illness seriously when there is an increase in cases. And then these same government officials take credit for their policies when COVID-19 cases drop.

Attorney General Dana Nessel recently engaged in the blame game.

In an April 17 Twitter post, Nessel blamed county prosecutors, sheriffs, police chiefs, and Republican officeholders for the latest increase in COVID-19 cases.

“The result is that our state now finds itself in the unenviable but predictable position of having the worst rates of new infections in the nation,” Nessel said.

The Nature of Contagion

COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses that are caused by viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One difference between the two is that COVID-19 seems to spread more easily, according to the CDC.

Yet many public officials, including Nessel, have described COVID-19 in far more nefarious terms.

“I have long compared this situation to that of a serial murderer on the loose but instead of helping to track down the killer, law enforcement announces that efforts by the government to have residents lock their doors and windows is a tyrannical action,” Nessel tweeted.

In the current moment, Nessel blamed the third wave of the epidemic on law enforcement. Her contention that the rise was predictable is not supported by statements from other state officials.

Consider Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who made these comments in early March, before cases started to spike.

Whitmer on March 2: “The only reason we are at this point is because you’ve been doing the right thing every day to protect yourself and your family and your community, by wearing a mask and washing your hands and maintaining social distance.”

Khaldun on March 10: “As Michiganders, we have shown what we are made of, and we have shown how much we care about each other. Michiganders have by and large followed public health recommendations: wearing masks, washing hands, and avoiding gatherings. And because of the work we have done together, we have fared much better than a lot of other states, bringing down our curve last spring, and again, this past fall.”

Whitmer on March 10: “And Michigan workers, we continue to follow public health protocols to minimize and mitigate the spread. And as vaccinations ramp up nationwide, we can see the light at the end of this tunnel.”

Policies or The People?

That was in early March. In mid-April, when their policies and restrictions had failed to stop the epidemic’s third wave, some officials are back to blaming Michigan residents.

On April 14, Whitmer blamed the recent surge of new cases, in part, on people tired of her COVID-19 policies – Whitmer referred to it as “fatigue” – and residents having dropped their guard.

Michigan Capitol Confidential has chronicled past instances in which county and state health directors, in addition to Whitmer and Khaldun, blamed residents for spikes in new COVID-19 cases.

This case of a government official who wields immense powers blaming the people evokes warnings in a 2008 report the American Civil Liberties Union issued on the Bush administration’s plans for responding to a nationwide epidemic.

The ACLU stated 13 years ago, “The disastrous consequences of public health policies built around a vision of sick people as the enemy.”

“Rather than focusing on how government can work with individuals and their communities to be healthy, public health policymakers now often emphasize the need to take tough, coercive actions against the very people they are charged to help,” the ACLU wrote. “This approach not only targets people as the enemy instead of the disease but also encourages health officials to believe that government cannot do much to help people in an epidemic.”

“In effect, individuals are viewed as personally responsible for the spread of illness,” the report stated. “This law enforcement/national security strategy shifts the focus of preparedness from preventing and mitigating an emergency to punishing people who fail to follow orders and stay healthy.”

Tom Gantert (gantert@mackinac.org)  is the managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. A version of this article was published on April 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission. 

 

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