Updated: Mar 26
The frustration on the Zoom call with Tennessee’s Democratic Caucus was palpable.
Palpable – because Republican lawmakers like Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culloeka, and others guided by conspiracy theories and other ridiculousness, recently forced the firing of Michelle Fiscus, the state’s medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunizations.
They did this in the middle of a pandemic in which Tennessee leads the nation in the largest increases of new COVID-19 infections.
They did this as the deadlier Delta variant lurks.
And their actions led the state’s health department to stop promoting all vaccines for
youths. Which means more sickness. More death.
And not just from COVID-19.
“They are pulling back on any kind of vaccine awareness campaigns for youths, so diseases like the measles and the mumps, polio, things that have ravaged our communities but have pretty much been eradicated because of vaccines, there’s a possibility that those will come back,” said an exasperated Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, during the call.
“This is an example of politics leading our public health department, and that is a problem…that is an abdication of leadership.”
Said Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville: “Health department workers were literally being told not to do their jobs. Imagine if that were food inspectors, building inspectors…
“It is time for the people of Tennessee to step up and say, ‘We’ve had enough,’ because we’re in a downward spiral.
“No one is winning right now.”
Problem is, the Republican lawmakers who comprise a supermajority in the Tennessee Assembly and who largely represent rural counties in a state that is mostly rural, have convinced their constituents that they are winning.
They’ve convinced many of them that they’re winning as long as they don’t have the government interfering in their lives.
No matter that the so-called intrusion means vaccines, health care and other innovations to not only save their lives, but to boost their quality of life.
These GOP lawmakers have convinced many of those Tennesseans that they have more to fear from undocumented immigrants at the border killing them than a pandemic that has already killed more than 12,000 of them.
But that deception started long before COVID-19 descended upon the state. Except now, the consequences will be deadly, said Jonathan Metzl, a Vanderbilt University sociology and psychology professor and author of the book: “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.”
“That’s the thesis of my book,” Metzl said. “If you tell poor white people that Black and brown people are going to get resources from the government, or if you tell them it’s government intrusion, they’ll basically do anything to fight that, even if it means rejecting their own lifesaving vaccines.”
Sadly, that’s been a winning strategy for Republicans – one that many are still embarking on.
One example: In the midst of the state’s COVID-19 crisis and the spread of the Delta variant, Gov. Bill Lee recently joined other Republicans at the southern border to gin up fears about undocumented immigrants.
No matter that Tennessee is nowhere near the southern border.
Instead, Lee should have been in Tipton County, encouraging people there to get vaccinated.
The rural county, which is north of Shelby County and whose constituents have voted Republican in every presidential election at least since 1996, is the newest hotspot for the spread of the pandemic.
According to The New York Times COVID-19 tracker, it had the highest 14-day increase in COVID-19 cases in the nation.
Encouraging vaccinations among all groups would likely slow or stop that spread. But if demonizing the government and people who many view as undeserving is a winning strategy, why let a deadly pandemic slow your roll?
If firing the state’s top vaccine official under the guise of protecting parental authority instead of protecting lives, why stop?
“This is a tried-and-true method,” Metzl said. “They [Republicans] used it with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and now they’re doing it with the vaccines.
“And every time, the implications get more and more serious. The implications of this vaccine nonsense is going to be catastrophic. People are going to die, and it’s going to overwhelm our system.”
So, what can the Democrats do? Metzl said that among other things, Democrats must do a more aggressive job of combatting misinformation – especially since the other side has no qualms about trafficking in lies and stereotypes for political gain.
They must also do a better in reaching out to rural voters, he said.
That’s going to be a challenge on a couple of levels.
One challenge will be to break the isolation that many rural people grapple with; to make those voters realize that a better strategy is to make government work in their lives, as opposed to voting for people who’ve persuaded them that they’re powerless to do so.
The other is to show them how they’re being played by those who are benefitting from their mistrust of government; to show them how, as Lee refuses to expand Medicaid and returns billions to the federal government each year on ideological grounds, they won’t have enough hospitals or the care they need if COVID-19 ravages the state.
That could happen as long as the state’s health department has to answer to lawmakers who are skeptical about vaccines, and who have no qualms about valuing their ideology over people’s lives.
Such efforts must be made – because if anything should be a bipartisan issue, it should be public health.
Yet as long as a majority of Tennessee voters continue to elect people who exploit fears by demonizing people, vaccines, and basic public services, they will continue to be vulnerable to bad governance that will lower their quality of life.
And, in the case of pandemics and childhood diseases, end their lives altogether.
Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw