Alaska finally did it. We went from being the state with the least chance of getting covid to the highest seven day average in the nation—five times the national average, according to the September 30 Anchorage Daily News, and twice the rate of the next highest state, West Virginia. According to last week’s KTUU Channel 2, only 58.1% of Alaskans are fully vaccinated, with 63.3% partially vaccinated.
Alaskan hospitals are overflowing with covid patients. Even Anchorage’s Providence Hospital has been forced to ration care, with people waiting in cars for admittance to the emergency room. Better plan your heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents; now is not the time.
It’s not like we didn’t have plenty of warning. Other states have had ambulances waiting in line at hospitals, rented hotel space or put tent hospitals in places like Central Park, New York.
Yet during the last week of September crowds flooded the Anchorage Assembly meeting, taking extra days to testify about the Assembly’s proposed mask mandate. Almost all of them maskless and in close quarters in the midst of a pandemic, many were staunch in the belief that they had a right not only to risk their own lives but to risk infecting others.
Yeah, masks are a nuisance, but really, people? Could you forgive yourself if refusing to wear one killed somebody, put them on a respirator, left them bankrupt with medical bills, or damaged their lungs, brains, hearts, or kidneys? Especially if it was a family member or close friend? Why are you so sure covid won’t kill or bankrupt you, or leave you with damaged organs? The Delta variant currently going around is far more infectious and far deadlier than the original Covid 19. Until the world’s population is protected by vaccinations, the virus will continue to mutate, the more infectious mutations crowding out the less infectious versions.
One close friend refused my pleas to get vaccinated, got extremely ill from covid, and still refuses to get vaccinated. Another begged her sister to get vaccinated. Her sister refused, and just died of covid. A close friend who lives in senior housing got covid, but despite being at high risk due to age, survived; he was vaccinated. It’s mostly the unvaccinated who are filling hospitals or dying.
Nationwide over 700,000 have died from covid, at a current rate of around 2000 per day, but 69,000,000 Americans haven’t gotten a single vaccine dose. The New York Times reports that covid cases dropped by 35% nationwide in September. But Dr. Vin Gupta, a Seattle critical care pulmonologist, warned that with schools opening up and more people attending activities, the death rate could rise as high as 3000 per day if large numbers of Americans continue to resist vaccinations, masks and social distancing.
Vaccinations have recently been approved for children 12 and over but not for younger children. Yet school boards and educators attempting to protect students by requiring masks have received so many threats that the 90,000 member National School Board Association wrote President Biden asking for FBI help in protecting them from violent anti-maskers and postal help with the mailed death threats. The Association also cited violence from people who think public schools are teaching critical race theory (a subject only taught in law schools and graduate college classes). Forbes, AXIOS, Reuters, MSNBC and other news outlets covered the story.
The Divided States of America
A number of vaccinations are required to attend public schools. We conquered smallpox through vaccinations, starting with George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, who in 1777 required his troops to get the earlier, less safe inoculations. This was more than two decades before British doctor Edward Jenner developed the first vaccination, after hearing a milkmaid saying she would never get smallpox scarring because she’d already had cowpox.
The 1955 Salk and 1960 Sabin vaccines meant that polio no longer cripples American children. Except for a minority of anti-vaxers, people routinely get vaccinations for measles, mumps, and flu. American covid vaccines are extremely safe and don’t even use a weakened virus—they use a piece of the virus.
So how did we get so divided that we can’t agree on how to fight a pandemic? So many people took ivermectin, a livestock dewormer hawked on Fox News’ opinion host Tucker Carlson’s show as curing or preventing covid, that the FDA sent a memo: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”
Who is responsible for so many dead, sick, or angry Americans?
Russian “germ warfare”
YouTube finally, belatedly, announced that it was taking anti-vaccine conspiracy theories off its site. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin then threatened to cancel YouTube, because if he can’t post his anti-vaccine conspiracy theories there it will be more difficult to spread them. Our intelligence agencies have shown the Russian bots and trolls plying the internet. Putin has weaponized our freedom of speech and freedom of the press, using the internet to spread disinformation. Russia has repeatedly interfered in European elections or attempted interference. But the old communist propaganda was so clumsy you could spot it a mile away. With the internet and social media, it can be difficult to distinguish between accurate sources and Russian disinformation.
Why wouldn’t Putin think he could successfully threaten YouTube? He already intimidated Google and Apple into dropping anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting app” from their stores right before the recent Russian election. Described as the man Putin fears most, Navalny survived a poison attempt, unlike many of Putin’s foes. He’s repeatedly been jailed for supporting democratic and human rights reforms, and for organizing demonstrations against Putin and the other corrupt oligarchs ruling Russia.
Our intelligence agencies have destroyed or exposed numerous Russian disinformation operations. Russians are very proud that their Sputnik was the world’s first satellite. Their website Sputnik gives all kinds of useful houseful hints and cute animal videos to lure viewers, who can then be targeted with disinformation.
If Putin conducted germ warfare against us, he would face our military might. If he suckers Americans into buying his conspiracy theories against very safe, extremely effective anti-Covid vaccines, we don’t really have a military solution for that. America gave the world the concept of a free press; if Americans refuse to believe their own legitimate press outlets and follow internet conspiracy theories propagated on Faux News, we need to address the problem politically—by voting against politicians who spread such disinformation.
You may have noticed the previous president attending his beloved rallies maskless, with his crowds of admirers also maskless. We call such events covid “superspreaders.” You may remember him suggest that people drink bleach to kill covid, while shocked bleach companies immediately warned people not to. You can google the videos, and Trump’s refusal to take responsibility for the inevitable poisonings. While Trump’s reckless behavior finally gave him covid, as president he got the best of medical attention and survived.
Where did Trump’s egregious failure to fight covid come from? We know he made numerous private calls to Putin, admires him, and is influenced by him. At the Helsinki summit, Trump said he trusted Putin above our own intelligence agencies, and there was no reason for Russia to meddle in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia had initiated cyber attacks and planted fake news stories in social media to sway the election to Trump. Republican Senator John McCain from my native Arizona said “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Dan Coats, the US Director of National Intelligence, cited Russia’s “ongoing, pervasive attempts” to undermine American democracy. Paul Ryan, Republican House Speaker at the time, said that Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” and that there was “no question” about Moscow interference in the 2016 election.
Trump himself invited that interference: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
And Russia did act; they hacked both the Democratic and Republican parties, and gave WikiLeaks information to use against Hillary Clinton. Our intelligence agencies have shown how Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort gave Russians the political knowledge to target crucial counties with disinformation; Trump won the Electoral College despite Hillary getting three million more votes. Before working for free on Trump’s campaign, Manafort made millions as a lobbyist for dictators in Ukraine and elsewhere, helping them stay in power despite the will of their people. Retroactively registering as a foreign agent in 2017, Manafort was charged and convicted of felonies by federal prosecutors.
Registered Republican Robert Mueller released “The Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Commonly known as the “Mueller Report,” you can download it and see the evidence of that interference. Trump’s first impeachment followed. His second was because he tried to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless their leader falsely accused Biden of corruption.
In 2020, Biden won almost five million more votes than Trump, votes that in several states were recounted and recounted. Yet polls show that approximately 70% of Republicans believe Trump’s false claim that Democrats stole the election (even though that same election reduced the number of Democrats in the House of Representatives). Two of the most conservative of Trump’s supporters, South Carolina’s Senator Lindsey Graham and Utah’s Senator Mike Lee both concluded that there was no evidence for Trump’s claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
This false claim led to the January 6 insurrection, with paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys overwhelming police and invading the Capitol, yelling that they would kill Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who is the current Speaker of the House, and hang Vice President Mike Pence. (Pence, after talking with former vice president Dan Quayle, decided he didn’t have the power to intervene in the certification of the 2020 election, incurring Trump’s wrath.) The mob, instigated and excused by Trump, came close to getting hold of our elected representatives, but didn’t due to the bravery of the Washington D.C. police. Trump and some Republican politicians supported the insurrectionists, even denying their attacks on police, but you can google the videos of the worst attack on our Capitol since the War of 1812.
Republicans blocked the attempt for a bipartisan investigation of the January 6 insurrection, attempting to put insurrection apologists on the committee. Democrats declined and are investigating. The FBI currently classifies right-wing terrorism as a bigger threat than foreign terrorism. Following the insurrection, “lone wolves” made repeated failed bombing attempts.
Trump’s example has infected the Republican Party. Trump-supporting politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a presidential hopeful, has repeatedly downplayed the covid threat, banned mask and vaccine mandates, and even withheld salaries to fight school mask mandates. After he denied knowledge of Florida’s ventilator shortage, NBC reported that the ventilators had been requested and the federal government sent them.
The consequences of politicizing a deadly disease? According to Charles Gaba, a health care analyst, in counties where Trump received at least 70% of the vote, covid has killed about 47 of every 100,000 people. In counties where Trump received less than 32% of the vote, covid’s killed about 10 per 100,000. (“Red Covid,” an article by David Leonhardt, one of the New York Times’ senior writers).
If you watch Fox News, you may have seen a true journalist, Chris Wallace, son of famous CBS 60 Minute icon Mike Wallace, as he supported masks and vaccines. You may have seen “Fox and Friends” and opinion anchors such as Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson argue against covid vaccines. Tucker Carlson called it child abuse to mask a child. Know that whatever the opinion hosts say, they themselves are safe in their workplace because Fox News requires its employees to be vaccinated or subjected to frequent covid testing. Fox owner Rupert Murdock, an Australian billionaire who became an American citizen so he could own multiple media outlets (that rail against immigration), is vaccinated.
Right-wing cable news One America Network also supports Trump and dispenses misinformation about covid. Given the desperate Alaskan covid situation, it would send a very powerful message if health professionals in hospitals such as Providence voted NOT to carry Fox and One America Network in the hospital cable package until those corporations stop spreading covid vaccine and mask misinformation. This would be a health decision, not a political decision. Hospital personnel shouldn’t have tolerate the corporate irresponsibility that puts them and their patients at risk, and subjects them to the trauma of losing patients or having to deny care to sick Alaskans.
“A republic—if you can keep it.”
This was Ben Franklin’s famous response to the woman who asked him what kind of government the founding fathers had devised. Slowly and painfully, our republic became a democracy as suffrage expanded from those who were wealthy enough to own land or businesses. Men got the right to vote even if they didn’t own property. Women were able to vote in 1920. Native Americans became American citizens in 1924, though in some states they weren’t allowed to vote until 1957. While the 15th Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, Ku Klux Klan and other racial terrorism kept many from voting until the 1965 Rights Act.
But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. In Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed federal intervention was no longer needed for voters of color. The result? A number of state governments began chipping away at their voting rights. North Dakota Republicans required street addresses to vote, because on Native American reservations people generally don’t have street addresses and get their mail at the post office. As MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow remarked, Republicans targeted the Native American vote like a heat-seeking missile. Although reservations valiantly worked to give people street addresses in time, that gambit unseated Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp and replaced her with a Republican.
Republicans in some states have eliminated Sunday voting precisely because black churches have a “Souls to the Polls” program where carless voters are taken to vote. NPR reported that voting rights activists complained that black and Latino voters were flooded with disinformation discouraging voting in the final days of the 2020 election or told the election was on a different day. A Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian election interference found that the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency targeted black voters. One Russian effort was a Facebook group called “Blacktivist.” According to the U.K. Channel 4 News and the Miami Herald the Trump campaign used Facebook ads to discourage blacks in swing states from voting; the Trump campaign denied the charges. Twitter suspended accounts pretending to be black supporters of Trump. Eric Trump shared doctored photos of rappers Ice Cube and 50 Cent that made them appear to be wearing “Trump 2020” hats.
Texas, which is thoroughly gerrymandered, accepts a handgun license for voter ID but not student IDs; the student vote tends to be more Democratic. Laws requiring drivers’ licenses as ID discriminate by income and racially, since in a number of cities many African Americans live in highrise housing served by bus lines and don’t drive. Republicans are fighting mail-in voting, and have deliberately restricted ballot boxes in areas where people of color live, resulting in voting lines up to eight hours long. Georgia Republicans made it illegal for volunteers to provide food or water to those waiting for hours. Voters in predominantly white areas face short lines.
Trump phoned Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “find” votes for him. Raffensperger recorded the call and released it to the press. Now Trump has endorsed a challenger to run against Raffensperger. The Repubican Party has become radicalized as anti-Trump office holders resign and are replaced by increasingly extreme Trump supporters such as Marjorie Taylor Green. Green attributed California wildfires not to drought, but to Jewish space lasers (the Rothschild banking firm supposedly providing financing for said lasers. Forbes had a delightful article satirizing her beliefs). Republicans are now quietly trying to replace Republican state officials who conducted fair elections with party hacks who can be more easily persuaded to throw an election.
In their just-released book Peril, two times Pulitzer Prize recipient Bob Woodward and Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa wrote that Russia, Iran and China all went on military alert after the January 6 insurrection, and China actually thought Trump was going to attack them. They detailed how Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked General Milley how our nuclear weapons were going to be controlled. Milley, deciding she had a point, then called in other military officers and told them they were not to take a call from President Trump unless Milley was in the room.
During the American Revolution Thomas Paine said,
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily defeated . . .”
In a Steven Colbert interview, Woodward said some Republican office holders told them they didn’t think they had the political capital to fight Trump. I used to be a Republican partly because I thought the party was stronger on defense issues than Democrats. I can’t understand how this current crop of office holders can put the desire for personal power over their country’s health and safety, and even over our right to free and fair elections.
Current congressional state of affairs
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is currently leading Republicans in a power play to shut down the government and refuse to pay the national debt. The Trump tax cuts he backed for wealthy corporations and individuals form a huge percentage of that debt. If McConnell succeeded, he would throw the economy into a recession. His goal is to extract Democratic concessions and persuade voters to hold Democrats, the party currently in power, responsible for any economic fallout.
Democrats Joe Manchin, senior senator from West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, senator from Arizona since 2019, are busy showing they are every bit as bought and paid for by campaign contributors their Republican colleagues. These two senators have stalled President Biden’s Build Back Better program, claiming it is too expensive, despite the fact that Biden ran on these proposals and polls show two-thirds of Americans support them. Biden’s proposals are designed to help people devastated by the economic consequences of covid, and to help them get jobs and move into the middle class.
Biden’s two bills include standard infrastructure, which would employ primarily men. His subsidized child care proposal would enable more women to return to work and help small businesses that desperately need workers.
Educational features address teacher shortages and preparation, and would include free community college, helping college students avoid the huge debt so many have been forced to incur. When I went to college, state universities were much more affordable, and there were far more government grants to help students pay for their education. Biden’s plan expands free school meals to an additional 9.3 million children during the school year and increase food subsidies to low-income families during the summer. It would upgrade school buildings with better labs and technology and increase energy efficiency.
Tax credits and government financing for construction or rehabilitation of over two million homes combat covid-increased costs for housing and rent.
Biden’s program expands Medicare benefits to include hearing aids, vision and dental benefits. Big Pharma opposes it because it would lower Medicare costs by allowing Medicare to bid for lower drug prices. (Senator Kyrsten Sinema is busy courting campaign contributions from drug companies.)
The plan would reduce health insurance premiums and help the uninsured get coverage. It would expand home health care for older and disabled Americans, enabling them to stay in their own homes longer and avoid assisted living or nursing homes. It would also improve the jobs and pay of home health care workers. Costs of assisted living and nursing homes are crushing for the elderly and profoundly disabled and many are hell-holes. This is a minority almost all of us will belong to should we live long enough. I put it to you: do you want to be stuck in assisted living or a nursing home with the state taking all but $100 a month of your Social Security or whatever income you have? That’s the current system. Or do you want to stay safely in your own home and keep your income?
Since Biden’s program includes clean energy proposals, the fossil fuel industry opposes it. They want to keep their government subsidies despite the price fossil fuels are exacting as rising carbon dioxide levels increase the heat, increase the western droughts that make forests tinder boxes, and spawn more powerful and frequent hurricanes. Manchin has made serious money from his coal investments. Climate change caused the warmest summer on record, with California and much of the west on fire and the east flooded by increased storms and hurricanes. Yet Republicans continue to deny man-made climate change due to contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Not a single Republican has endorsed Biden’s proposals, despite overwhelming public support. Wealthy taxpayers and corporations oppose Biden’s legislative agenda because it would overturn their unpopular Trump tax cuts.
Putin expert Fiona Hill testified in Trump’s second impeachment hearing, putting the blame for election interference squarely on Russia, not Ukraine as Trump and his allies were claiming. In her recent book There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity In the 21st Century, she writes of leaving the desperation and closing businesses of the English coal mining town where she grew up and coming to America. She argues that the desperation of lost jobs and lost opportunities is driving our politics off a cliff, and that we can only save our democracy by expanding opportunity. I agree. We can’t afford politicians who continually work for themselves instead of for us.
One of Putin’s goals is to convince people that democracy doesn’t work. So, folks, when do we pick up the phones and send the e-mails making our leaders responsible to us rather than to campaign contributors?
Lois Gilbert taught history for the University of Alaska and worked as a full-time journalist. She has an extended major and M.A. in history, major in journalism, and the equivalent of a minor in political science.