By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The politics surrounding the pandemic have become more toxic than the disease.
More Americans have died from COVID-19 than most wars the United States has fought and more than the pandemic in the early part of the last century that lasted longer than this one has been ravaging people here and around the world.
The fight to put the coronavirus behind us to move on with our lives, return to what we once thought as normal and stabilize the economy should not be partisan.
It should be something everyone wants to achieve in the quickest way possible, but instead it has become weaponized in the cultural wars that dominate the country’s politics.
How did the country become so divided it cannot agree on the best methods to eradicate this awful virus that is now infecting children at an alarming rate as students return to schools and colleges, and not so much the elderly in nursing homes who experienced the biggest impact in the pandemic’s early days.
The political toxicity is far more widespread than just the pandemic, although it is far more deadly for most Americans than other issues that rage in the culture wars like immigration, abortion and gay marriage.
Far too many people hear only what they already believe or what is known as confirmation bias and no longer utilize the critical thinking skills necessary to detect suspect information.
People can no longer agree on facts, instead they cite “alternative facts.”
Whatever happened to this country when not that long ago former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick “Pat” Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Now there is no retribution for lies or “alternative facts.”
The partisan divide over the pandemic is seen between individuals as disagreements escalate quickly over face masks.
An unsettled lawsuit brought by disabled Democratic members of the House against House Speaker Sherman Packard is still to be decided. The suit is to allow high-risk members to participate remotely in House sessions, something Packard said is contrary to House rules.
Yet every time there was an attempt to change the rule, Republicans voted it down, helping to expand their slim majority as some of the disabled Democrats decided the risk was too high to participate.
Earlier this year it appeared the lawsuit might be moot with the falling infection rates, but no longer with the current surge driven by the Delta variant.
The two parties have also decided their fortunes will be tied to the pandemic and how it is handled.
President Trump’s handling of the pandemic cost him the 2020 presidential election as Democrats made sure the country knew how dire the situation was.
And the Republican hierarchy believes how President Biden’s handling of the pandemic can cost Democrats during the 2022 and 2024 elections.
The messaging from federal health officials has not been consistent from the beginning over masks, vaccines and various other ways to protect yourself from the virus.
At the same time, misinformation has been contagious spreading faster than the Delta variant.
Because of the breadth of information, good and bad, some people are adamantly opposed to vaccines or face masks as vehicles to stop the spread of the virus.
If that were all it was, that would be one thing, but instead the slow down in vaccinations allowed infections to rebound quickly filling hospitals and infecting children.
An individual’s rights have become more important than the public good making it much more difficult to contain the virus.
And states reacted differently to the virus and how they sought to protect their citizens, some deciding letting the virus spread uncontrolled was the best method.
Unfortunately, how states reacted to COVID-19 has had more to do with the governor’s political party than science and medicine with one or two exceptions.
Some governors followed the advice of medical experts, some did not and now there is a patchwork of infections and mitigating activities around the country.
And often the real public health decisions are left to officials at the local level like school boards and selectmen.
School boards are under attack by parents and activists opposed to mandatory face masks or vaccines.
It is reminiscent of the heyday of Tea Party activists who disrupted meetings with members of Congress, most of them Democrats, fueled by Koch network money and other far right activists with deep pockets.
Everyone needs to take a step back.
The first mass casualties in the pandemic were nursing home residents. The most vulnerable among us were dying from COVID-19 brought into the facilities by workers and visitors.
When the nursing homes began frequent employee testing and shut the door to family and friends, the infections began declining and declined further when nursing home residents were some of the first to be fully vaccinated.
Since that time, the protocols have been relaxed and with the Delta variant, the virus has returned to nursing homes but not in such large numbers.
Some would say what Biden did to mandate vaccines or frequent testing should have been done a long time ago to stop the spread among the frail elderly and disabled in long term care facilities.
Nursing homes were also some of the first places breakthrough infections occurred because they were some of the first vaccinated.
That information would be very valuable for many people to know. Just how frequently does someone become infected after being vaccinated and what vaccine was administered.
However, that information is not available readily in New Hampshire. It is if you call the Health and Human Services Department, but it is not on the state’s website for COVID-19 information.
Knowing the break-through rate would allow people to know how effective the vaccine is and if one vaccine out performs others, which appears to be the case in a recent Center for Disease Control study.
But what happened recently was a New Hampshire state health official’s information was ignored by Republicans on the Executive Council and Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee.
And the partisan fight here has become ugly at times with intimidation tactics and uncivil behavior.
Since June the state has barely moved from about 55 percent of citizens fully vaccinated, by far the worst in New England and about in the middle of the pack nationally.
But $27 million dollars in federal money to expand the state’s stalled vaccination program was held up by Republicans on the council and the fiscal committee because some erroneously believe that vaccines are not effective.
And the House GOP leadership wrote the all-Democratic Congressional delegation urging them to fight the vaccine mandates imposed by Biden by executive order for all federal employees, government contractors and businesses with over 100 employees.
Gov. Chris Sununu said he will join with other Republican governors in fighting the mandates in court.
Democrats fired back in both instances saying Republicans are irresponsible and have put political expediency over public health.
And while the two parties are sniping back and forth, more people are infected with COVID-19 and yes, more people are dying.
Using the pandemic as a political weapon may win elections, but the cost in human lives is enormous, and Machiavellian.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veteran journalist Garry Rayno is a New Hampshire Press Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner. In Distant Dome, he explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.