If you had to summarize Gov. Ron DeSantis’s response to the coronavirus in one word, it would be “controversy.”
Throughout the pandemic, there has been a constant stream of media firestorms and polarizing news cycles deriding DeSantis and his COVID-19 policies. The hashtag “#DeathSantis” is a recurring plotline in the drama, a constant accusation that DeSantis is not concerned with protecting the lives of Floridians.
Florida’s governor is by no means a hapless victim of this criticism. He revels in the media hit pieces, aware that constant broadsides from the press and the online left are badges of honor to his Republican base. Likewise, his policies are catered to those already in agreement with him. Banning private entities from requiring proof of vaccination helps “stem government overreach” only if you are engaged in motivated reasoning.
However, the DeathSantis critique of Florida’s governor overlooks the price of a different approach.
What these critiques ignore are the real human costs of extremely restrictive measures. Weighing the costs of lockdowns against the benefits of reducing the spread of COVID-19 increasingly favors loosening restrictions — especially in the context of a free vaccine available to anyone who wants it.
This doesn’t absolve policymakers from exercising discernment. In another play to his base, DeSantis issued an executive order barring Florida schools from imposing mask mandates. Given the general public judges the minimal costs of masking children to be worth the minimal reduction of spread, imposing the minority position statewide is a deeply flawed policy.
As often happens with viral campaigns and activism, whatever reasoned, fair critique of DeSantis’s COVID-19 policies that could be expressed by an adversarial press and #DeathSantis is mired by a slew of ridiculous accusations; accusations that accomplish little besides validating the priors of DeSantis’s opponents and discrediting legitimate criticism of DeSantis.
When DeSantis prioritized nursing homes and other elderly communities for vaccine distribution, he was derided for favoring older, whiter, wealthier constituencies. The fact that wealth and age are heavily correlated and that the elderly are at far greater risk from COVID-19 was apparently of no concern.
Should DeSantis have used an alternative model of “equitable” distribution, such as the one rejected by the CDC due to a higher estimated death rate across all racial groups? Whatever criticisms one may have of DeSantis, his focus on elderly populations has been a success — especially when comparing Florida’s age-adjusted death rate to that of other states.
When DeSantis allowed Publix to shoulder the burden of vaccine distribution in Florida, 60 Minutes aired a clownishly misreported hit job (complete with deceptive editing) that was rebuked by nearly every person of note they bothered to interview.
DeSantis’s supposed transgression was receiving a $100,000 campaign contribution from Publix before his decision. Given Publix’s presence in Florida, Occam’s razor would not point to corruption. Of note is that the decision was not made by DeSantis, but by a bipartisan group under a Democratic appointee in the state Emergency Operations Center.
These slanders-as-stories pale in comparison to the holy grail of anti-DeSantis spin — the ongoing (and constantly shifting) narrative around DeSantis’s promotion of Regeneron as a treatment for pre-hospitalization COVID-19 patients.
This tired narrative was quickly swatted away with a stern rebuke from DeSantis and an endorsement from COVID-19 Oracle Dr. Anthony Fauci. Afterward, the nefarious angle on DeSantis and Regeneron shifted; while it may be saving lives, promoting Regeneron is irresponsible because vaccination is better.
In an effort to blame lackluster vaccine distribution for high Regeneron demand, CNN noted that “about 75% of the [Regeneron] orders are coming from regions of the U.S. that have low vaccination rates.” Florida, however, has an above-average vaccination rate.
To address this imbalance, as well as to stave off a theoretical Regeneron shortage, the Biden administration announced it would be rationing Regeneron treatments to “maintain equitable distribution.” Equitable here meaning Florida’s supply of Regeneron is lowered by more than 50%, with supplies diverted from high usage states to low usage states.
Now that DeSantis’s promotion of an indispensable treatment has surged demand, the dictates of equity require that Floridians who need Regeneron be left for dead.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, typically an opponent of DeSantis on all things COVID-19, joined him in condemning the Biden administration’s policy. In an interesting twist to the DeathSantis Gordian knot, Fried additionally blamed DeSantis for doing “frustratingly little … to promote [Regeneron’s] use until last month,” her advisor’s implication of corruption around Regeneron notwithstanding.
One struggles to contemplate how any interpretation of equity could justify requisitioning a life-saving drug from where it is needed to where it is less needed. Given relatively low vaccination rates in minority communities, it seems minorities in Florida will bear the brunt of Biden’s “equitable” Regeneron rationing.
In the DeathSantis style of acrimony over rigor, equity is a comfortable rhetorical cudgel to wield against DeSantis’s COVID-19 response. By constantly invoking equity, DeSantis’s critics may think they are appealing to minority voters.
Behind the semantics, these equity-branded policies represent something else entirely. Is requiring vaccination to work, eat, or travel equitable? How about restricting access to Regeneron?
Minority support for Republicans is a growing trend in American politics. DeSantis arguably won the governorship due to unexpected gains with Black women. By messaging to his base on COVID-19, DeSantis could garner support from minorities with similar attitudes toward vaccination and lockdowns.
Meanwhile, his critics are busy talking to themselves.
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Featured Image: Caricature of Ron DeSantis. Unmodified photo by DonkeyHotey used under a Creative Commons License. (https://bit.ly/3jjHceL)