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The Republicans Take America on a Death March

Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Betsy DeVos are willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives for nothing more than political points.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Trump see eye to eye on letting people die from Covid-19.

Late last month, Carsyn Leigh Davis turned 17 in an intensive care unit bed in Naples, Florida. Two days later, at 1:06 p.m. on June 23, she died at a children’s hospital across the state, in Miami, where she’d been transferred for last-ditch “heroic efforts” at saving her life. She was the latest of 3,281 deaths in the state from Covid-19 at the time; as I write this, less than two weeks later, the toll is now 3,841.

Davisan honors student and Special Olympics volunteer with multiple lifelong medical conditions, whose parents were “a nurse and physician’s assistant”had attended a large Pentecostal church party “with 100 other children” 13 days before her death, according to the Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s report. “She did not wear a mask. Social distancing was not followed.”

Several days after that party, when she turned gray and exhibited life-threatening blood-oxygen levels, Davis’s parents put her on her grandfather’s oxygen tank and dosed her with hydroxychloroquine, the dubious drug that President Trump pushed (and claimed to be taking) to stave off Covid-19. On the strength of the president’s endorsement, millions of his supporters, including adherents to QAnon conspiracy theories, have made runs on hydroxychloroquine. In fact, after rushing her dying daughter to the hospital, Davis’s mother grew furious when the doctors refused to give the girl more hydroxychloroquine. Davis’s mother also refused to let the doctors put her daughter on a ventilator, according to the medical examiner’s report. Three days later, as Davis flagged, the doctors declared the ventilator a necessity, but even after intubation, “her best O2 saturation was low 70s”; the concentration of oxygen in her blood remained fatally low, and she never recovered.

Keeping churches open—as well as beaches, restaurants, and dividend-yielding commerce—has been a big priority for Ron DeSantis, who, as Florida’s fourth consecutive Republican governor, serves two key constituencies: rich people in general, and one aged West Palm Beach snowbird heir in particular. In that spirit, DeSantis has resisted calls from medical experts and Florida residents to return to quarantine measures or shutdowns of nonessential businesses.

Like most of his fellow Republicans, DeSantis has spent the last few months in search of a communications strategy that might make people stop asking him things. There was the libertarian-dreamer gambit: “If everyone is, you know, enjoying life, but doing it responsibly, you know, we’re going to be fine,” he stammered in a July 2 press conference with Vice President Mike Pence. (People just need to exercise some lifesaving restraint, said the man who could actually mandate lifesaving restraint.) There’s been the denialist refrain: Theme parks are “safe” to open, he’s insisted over the protests of workers at those parks and in spite of rampant infections among Major League Soccer athletes at a Disney park. Then there was the fatalist who’d noted four days earlier that the median age of coronavirus carriers had plummeted to 40. “You can’t control … younger people,” he said. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

But on Monday, Florida’s Republican leadership pivoted into coronavirus-era big government by, well, controlling kids. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran—handpicked for the job by DeSantis after serving as the Republican speaker of the statehouse—ordered “All school boards and charter school governing boards” to “open brick and mortar schools in August at least five days per week for all students.” The order was written to give local districts the power to shut schools if public health demanded it, but the Politburo is making clear it doesn’t want any rogue commissars: “Logically, I don’t think they could say schools aren’t safe if they are allowing people to be out in public,” a Florida education department spokeswoman said.

As Politico’s Florida Playbook noted Tuesday, DeSantis had promised residents a “data-driven” approach to reopening state functions, but the schools order was “issued as all the data showed increases in coronavirus 1) cases, 2) hospitalizations and 3) deaths.” It’s also worth knowing that only a few hours before Florida’s school order came down, this tweet happened:

DeSantis and Florida’s Republicans were merely acting as provincial boyars, carrying out their tsar-batushka’s demands. This is the GOP now, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVoswho is surprisingly obsequious for a billionaire heiressmade clear, hours after Trump’s tweet:

By Tuesday, the White House had mobilized an entire roomful of mostly unmasked, mostly white people to discuss carrying out Trump’s edict:

The reasoning is pretty easy to grasp here; it has to be, since Trump appears to appreciate it: Give parents the chance to return their kids to school five days a week, and their parents can work full shifts those days. Though it would not improve most families’ personal economies—many jobs lost in the past quarter aren’t coming back—opening schools will improve aggregate productivity, making state and national economies appear stronger in October than they appear now. In the brain of a very cynical, very depraved person, this could appear to be a pre–Election Day win.

When the virus’s spread appeared to be brought under control during the initial quarantines, the idea of “reopening” schools seemed an optimistic goal. Today, if you care about public health and can read a bar graph, you know that the school order is insane. I say this as a freelancing single parent with a child in Florida public schools, who has lost some income and energy along with the rest of America in attempting to balance daily work and parenting through the spring semester. My first thought on reading the Florida school-opening order was that my child would not be able to hug his immunocompromised grandparents for the foreseeable future. My second was that I am immunocompromised.

But the next morning, on reading about the life and death of Carsyn Davis, I could only think of this: Republicans know they’re killing people, lots of people—by spreading disinformation, by encouraging noncompliance, by refusing to act, and now, by actively assuring contagion. DeSantis has suggested over and again that the skyrocketing coronavirus cases among young Floridians are fine. “What the hospitals are seeing is a different class of patient than what they saw in March and April,” he said. “You’re seeing people that are skewing a little younger, and I think the clinical outcomes are going to be better.” They sure as hell weren’t better for Davis.

DeSantis and many Republicans continue to give lip service to “protecting the most vulnerable,” but they know some young people do die; some get sick and stay sick, possibly for life; and some spread the disease to older people, who will die or be maimed. They don’t give a shit. “I think we overreacted,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said last week. “We closed too much of our economy down.” One White House official told reporters last week that Trump would have a new, election-optimized P.R. strategy for dealing with the Covid-19 threat: “The virus is with us, but we need to live with it.” This is the message of the Dear Leader who told us in March that “the problem goes away in April.”

As I write this, the virus has killed 44 times more Americans than died on 9/11. Eventually, many of our political leaders will be seen for what they are in this: witting accomplices to homicide on a scale that Republicans might call genocide, if they watched it unfold in another country. Who says exceptionalism is dead?