Matt Buxton

Matt Buxton





Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink’s editorial in The Washington Post starts out the way a lot of editorials written by frontline health care workers start out: With a scene of severely ill patient struggling to breath, scared and with plummeting oxygen levels “not usually compatible with life.” It contains the same lamentation about how the patient—like so many critically ill patients are nowadays—is unvaccinated. The patient, Zink writes, “was suffering not just because of the virus, but also because of the deadly combination of misinformation and disinformation in a broken health-care system, in a country of broken trust.”

While the editorial goes on to talk about how Alaska’s strong initial response to the pandemic and the rollout of vaccines—which were both driven primarily by the state’s tribal health care system—eventually faltered and what’s needed to remake and repair the health care system that’s been ravaged, this point is particularly important: “Hesitancy and misinformation made many people underestimate the risk of covid-19 infections and overestimate the risk from the coronavirus vaccines.”

It’s a story that’s playing out on a daily basis—both through the steady march of deaths and in stories like this—as people continue to underestimate the risk of a virus that they’ve been told over and over again is somewhere between a Democratic hoax and no worse than the common cold. All along the way, covid-19 conspiracies have been enmeshed in the wellness movement with claims that the hospitals and Big Pharma are ignoring the real and simple cures like anti-parasitics and heavy doses of vitamins (which the purveyors of those fantasies just so happen to be selling). As if to put a fine point on it, this weekend several prominent vaccine skeptics will be in Anchorage for a conference on “the covid virus and effective treatments!” where you, too, can get in on the secrets that Big Medicine doesn’t want you to know for a cool $20 for the morning session and another $20 for the afternoon session. 

It’s messaging like that, which is breathlessly relayed and amplified by far-right enablers as some kind of gotcha on the libs, that drive their followers down this route with very real consequences. Filled with the hope of miracle cures and distrust of the hospitals, followers of these fringe hucksters are not just more likely to get the virus but they’re also more likely to wait to get tested and wait to seek medical care. When they eventually do seek care, they are that much more sick, that much closer to intubation and that much more likely to suffer long-term impacts of the virus.

In Zink’s piece, she notes the patient “had spent hundreds of dollars for online remedies” when he got sick. And yet, there he was gasping for air with oxygen levels “not usually compatible with life.”

The story comports with a recent study that found the likelihood to believe in covid conspiracy theories predicted a decreased likelihood of getting tested; an increased likelihood to test positive if they do get tested and an increased likelihood to violate public health measures. That makes sense, but what’s even more interesting is that the belief in conspiracy theories also was linked to an increased likelihood of job loss, reduced income, social rejection and overall wellbeing.

It’s something about the belief in the conspiracy that it’s really Big Doctor making you sick, poor and unhappy that’s really why you’re sick, poor and unhappy. 

Zink’s editorial doesn’t point fingers, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that much of the blame for the prolonged pain and suffering of Alaskans—and not to mention the tepid economic recovery—rests with the purveyors of these lies. 

But even when confronted with the consequences of their misinformation—whether it be through their own long-haul symptoms (following what is usually the best care unavailable to most) or the deaths of prominent members of their following—they’ve only dug in that much deeper. We’ve hoped time and again that something would click and our elected leaders could at least have the humility to urge their followers to get the vaccine and consider wearing a mask, but that would require them admitting that they had some responsibility in shaping the misguided views of their followers. 

“People don’t really wake up until it happens to them or someone they love,” Assemblymember Christopher Constant told Alaska Public Media for a story about the diverging realities in the wake of William Topel’s death from covid-19. “And even now, you have evidence that that isn’t even enough to wake people up.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Dunleavy—who once whined about Alaska Public Media’s mask mandate as “virtue signaling”—today announced he’s dragged the state into a lawsuit to protect the virtues of Alaskans who refuse to get vaccinated.

Delegator-in-chief

Speaking of virtue signaling, Mayor Amy Demboski Dave Bronson’s administration is keeping it up with petty antics over the Anchorage Assembly’s masking mandate with one of the more childish displays—even by their standards—at Wednesday’s regular assembly meeting. There, MayorMunicipal Manager Amy Demboski played the role of obstructor by drawing out the debate with a plain-wrong understanding of how the law works. The Assembly, which is also in the process of standing up a legal effort against Bronson’s overreach, voted 6-5 to postpone the hearing after it became clear that Demboski would continue to thwart the Assembly’s attempts to exert any semblance of control of its chambers. 

The whole thing prompted a scathing editorial by former Assemblymember Ernie Hall, who wrote that Bronson administration’s attempts to interfere with how the Assembly conducts its business is unprecedented. 

“However, I do believe that it’s the first time I’ve heard of a city official, i.e. the city manager, Amy Demboski, play so blatantly to an audience that was being totally abusive and disrespectful of the freedom that they have to participate in and be part of the public process,” he wrote. “We all need to remember that Anchorage has 12 duly elected officials who swear an oath to serve and protect the citizens of our community. That includes everyone, not just those who voted for them.” 

He also wraps up with a particularly stinging assessment of Bronson’s leadership. 

“Sometimes I’ve wondered if Mayor Dave Bronson has abdicated his office, as it seems to me that I hear more about Ms. Demboski on the news and in the paper than I do the mayor. He has, once again, delegated to her issues that are his and his alone. I read where Mayor Bronson once said that a good pilot never flies the A model of an aircraft. If that were actually true, we would all still be on the ground wondering what it would be like to fly,” he writes. “Mayor, you won the race; now you are going to have to learn to fly that A-model aircraft. You are now the chief pilot of our city government and it’s your responsibility to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the Municipality of Anchorage, whether they voted for you or not. Please stop delegating your responsibility and do the job that you were elected – and swore an oath – to do, and let Ms. Demboski do hers.” 

Hitting the wall

While Demboski’s anti-mask antics might play well with the anti-mask crowd that turns up to harass the Anchorage Assembly, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s got its limits with everyone else. 

This week’s failed recall against Meg Zalatel was as much a proxy battle over Bronon’s “New Direction” for Anchorage as it was over the Anchorage Assembly—which is sitting at a not-all-that-surprising 20 points down according to the latest results. In the four months since taking office, Bronson’s “New Direction” has yielded little beyond some shady hirings, shady contracts and grievance politics. Beyond appointing his buddies to jobs they apparently don’t even want, spreading covid-19 and making headlines for defending antisemitism, what exactly has the Bronson administration accomplished so far? Owning the libs—which has so far amounted to getting several appointments rejected and his vetoes override—isn’t exactly a productive agenda. 

Some observers have rightly wondered whether the exhausting scare tactics and constant grievance of the extreme-right are starting to hit their limit as people either burn out with the constant stream of anger and vitriol (really, I don’t understand how people stay so mad for so long) and get a close look just what the priorities that seems to revolve around racial grievance, Holocaust denialism and anti-science conspiracy. 

Along with the failure of the recall, Fairbanks just spiked a slate of QAnon conservatives in its local elections (with plenty of reports that your centrist, run-of-the-mill Republicans soured on the slate) and Juneau’s voters poured it on in favor of folks who supported strong mitigation efforts for covid-19, including electing Will Muldoon to the school board on a write-in ticket. I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult for moderate and centrist conservatives to look at the slate and not be alarmed by where things are going. 

You don’t have to be a dirty liberal to oppose the extreme right. 

The not-so-special session

There’s not a whole lot more to be said about the special session than what I wrote earlier this week, which is to say that it’s nearing the fruitless conclusion that we pretty much all expected going into the thing. The most notable thing of the whole affair is the worsening Republican infighting in the Senate, where the brain trust of Sens. Hughes, Costello, Shower, Reinbold, Holland and Myers have fallen back to just straight up whining about not getting their way. The group made headlines this week along with Gov. Mike Dunleavy for demanding that their fellow Republicans just go ahead and allow a vote on a big PFD… because… um… reasons. 

As one observer pointed out, it’s sure ironic that the group that pushed the entire caucus to be non-binding is now complaining that they can’t force the rest of the caucus to do their bidding. After all, it takes a majority of the Senate to pull a bill from committee, which happens to be how many votes you’d need to also pass a supplemental dividend, so given that they’d rather whine than vote ought to be particularly telling that they don’t have the votes. 

But, hey, at least it sounds like the Department of Revenue will finally be releasing its long-promised fiscal model to allow the public to play around with different approaches to the budget, at least that’s the claim in a recent news release announcing the state’s updated revenue forecast. It had been promised for the start of the third special session, along with gambling taxes and several others that have all been notably absent.

Behind the scenes, there’s increasingly palpable frustration with Dunleavy’s inability to take any sort of leadership with the state’s fiscal crisis. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, pulled precisely zero punches when he talked with KTUU’s Sean Maguire about the situation.

Dunleavy, like most lawmakers, has not been in the Capitol for most of the fourth special session. He wasn’t in Juneau for the majority of the third one, either. Longtime legislative staff say that’s unusual, particularly if the governor is seriously interested in seeing meaningful reform.

That leaves a clear explanation for Stedman why this special session was called in the first place.

“It’s politics, it’s election-year campaigning,” he said.

Or, as another Republican told me: “I’d hope he doesn’t win another term.”

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