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Bill Barr and the Politics of Covid

There is a meme that was popular on social media a few months and has popped up again more recently.  It is a picture of Patrick Henry giving his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech.  Only in this meme, it’s changed to read, “Give me liberty or give me death!!  Unless there’s a virus with a 99% recovery rate.  In which case strip me of my freedoms, my job, my constitutional rights, and put me under house arrest.”

Another meme shows the famous painting of the Founding Fathers all gathered together to sign the Constitution.  The caption reads, “Just to be clear, none of this matters if there’s a virus.  Right?”

Now, we see these memes and get a chuckle out of them.  But do they have a point?  Do they accurately capture the sentiments of many Americans today?

Unfortunately, yes, they do.  Certainly it isn’t everyone, but there is a sizable and vocal chunk of the American populace who have readily embraced and encouraged the government’s shutdown of independent businesses, the mask mandates, the crackdown on public gatherings and many of the other steps that have been taken. 

On the flip side though, there is an equally sizable and vocal chunk who have decried these restrictions.  These folks have condemned them as unconstitutional and antithetical to living in a free society. 

This second group can count among their numbers the Attorney General of the United States, Bill Barr. 

At an event hosted by Hillsdale College he was asked to address the potential Constitutional hurdles that existed for forbidding churches from meeting during Covid-19.  Barr’s answer, “You know, putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest.  Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American History.”

In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemmon, writer Jon Meacham described these comments as incendiary hyperbole.  He went on to claim that the comments were designed to feed the paranoia and fear that the administration was relying on politically.  In particular, Lemmon and Meacham found the comparison to slavery especially egregious.

And Mr. Meacham has a point that a political divide has emerged over the reaction to the coronavirus.  Those opposing the continuation of lockdowns and mask requirements have tended to gravitate toward the President while those in favor of continued restrictions have found their champions in Democratic State Governors who have implemented and enforced these orders to a far greater extent than their Republican counterparts (I’m speaking in generalities here, there are exceptions on both sides).

Reinforcing the idea of this debate being politically driven, Bill Barr went on to say, “Most of the governors do what bureaucrats always do, which is … defy common sense.  They treat free citizens as babies that can’t take responsibility for themselves and others.” 

This was clearly a shot at the democratic governors.  But not being content with taking a shot at the other side, Barr gave his side a boost as well in his answer.  “We have to give business people an opportunity, tell them what the rules are you know the masks, which rule of masks, you had this month … and then let them try to adapt their business to that and you’ll have ingenuity and people will at least have their freedom to try and earn a living.”

While I think it’s pretty clear that the virus is being politicized by both sides, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to be found.  That doesn’t mean this issue isn’t worth exploring.  Even if you take the cynical view that Bill Barr’s comments were politically driven, the question still remains: have the measures taken in response to the Coronavirus been an unreasonable intrusion on personal freedom?

To answer that, let’s look at some of the numbers.  According to the CDC website as of September 17, the total number of covid-19 cases in the U.S. is 6,571,867.  The total U.S. Deaths from the virus is 195,053.  This is out of a total U.S. population of slightly more than 328 million. 

For those that are interested in percentages: the percent of the U.S. population that has been infected is 2%.  The percent of the infected that have died is 2.96%.  And the percent of total U.S. population that has died from Covid-19 is roughly half of 1%. 

Now, these numbers are not good.  A disease that has a near 3% mortality rate is far deadlier than we would like.  But at the same time, it isn’t the Earth-shattering number that many try to make it out to be.  We have not yet reached the point of having a guy walk down the street with a cart, ringing a bell, and shouting “Bring out your dead!” 

To give some perspective, the H1N1 flu virus from 2009 infected 60.8 million Americans of which 12,469 died.  That comes out to a figure significantly less than 1% (again, these numbers come from the CDC website). 

Finally, there is one other number that has to be considered in all of this: that is 6%.  According to a report from the CDC a few weeks ago, of the people who died from the Coronavirus, only 6% died of the virus itself.  The remaining 94% died of complications that the virus caused to preexisting conditions that they had.  For some, the virus might have exacerbated another condition they had.  For others, they might have had problems with their immune system which rendered their body incapable of defensing itself.  As far as raw numbers go, once the math is done, we see that about 11,700 died from Covid-19 being the only factor.

So, what does all of this tell us in regard to Bill Barr’s comments?  It tells me that, while his comparison to slavery may have been hyperbolic as Meacham said, the reactions by state governors (most of whom fall into the Democratic camp) were completely the wrong response.  Infringing on people’s right to assemble, infringing on people’s freedom of Religion, and infringing people’s right to engage in commerce (not specifically in the Bill of Rights, I know, but I’ll include it under the auspices of the 10th Amendment all the same) was, in fact, completely unnecessary. 

The 6% vs 94% percent figure tells us that the reaction of Republican governors who took steps to protect the vulnerable while letting the rest of society go on as normally as possible was the right move.  I understand that in these Republican states there were later spikes in Covid cases.  I also understand that some of them instituted lockdown and mask policies during those spikes.  But their early and continued response of protecting the vulnerable had the result of less deaths from those spikes than the Democrat states that instituted state wide general lockdowns that were longer lasting and farther reaching.  

One could, and some have, make the argument that early in the game things were still being sorted out and doctors were still trying to figure out the best response to the virus, so lockdown was the most sensible strategy until more information was available.  But even if I concede that, it raises the question, what’s the excuse now?  Now that we know the overwhelming majority of those who die have a condition that makes them vulnerable, why continue the lockdowns for the rest of us?  Why not implement the policies that protect the vulnerable and let the rest of us get back to work, go back to school, and have a social life with our other healthy friends?    

Because politics.  That really is the answer. 

I would ask you to keep these two thoughts in mind over the next few months.  First, that the virus is indeed dangerous.  Second, that it is being exploited by politicians on both sides for political gain.  Both things can be true.

My biggest fear in regard to the Coronavirus isn’t the virus itself.  It’s that one side or the other will see a huge victory at the ballot box based on their exploitation of it.  If that happens, then a road map will have been laid out for future politicians to follow so as to exploit any future virus or aggressive flu strain that may pop up.  My fear is that this will set a precedent for destroying an economy and abandoning Constitutional rights whenever its politically convenient for one side or the other to do so.

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