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EDITORIAL: Politicization of the pandemic spawns threats against public health officials

EDITORIAL: Politicization of the pandemic spawns threats against public health officials

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In a depressing sign of the times, California is considering legislation to shield public health officials’ home addresses because many of them are getting death threats from people frustrated with stay-at-home orders. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist and most visible health official, has 24-hour security for the same reason.

This dark politicization of the pandemic isn’t bipartisan — it’s coming almost entirely from the right — and it wasn’t inevitable. Stemming it should start with more responsible behavior from high-profile people like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who once again has gone on an anti-science tear against pandemic safety measures.

Fauci and other health experts had the unenviable task of originally urging policymakers and Americans at large to take the extreme step of shuttering the economy to limit the spread of the virus. When America careened past a six-figure death toll — even with those unprecedented shutdowns — it became clear that the experts were right. Had America done nothing, a seven-figure death toll by now would have been the likely result.

Which makes it all the more rational to listen to those experts now, as they warn that many states closed too late, reopened too early and are now facing a boomerang of new coronavirus cases. But two things have changed since the first round of shutdowns: America has experienced shutdown fatigue so severe that many people seem unwilling to do it again no matter what the cost in illness and lives. And the political right has made villains of the very experts who have been trying to control the crisis — an extension of many conservatives’ distrust of science in general.

Some are taking the kill-the-messenger sentiment too literally. The Los Angeles County public health director has reported receiving multiple death threats because she maintained a stay-at-home-order for the county’s 10 million residents. Her counterpart in Orange County resigned after similar threats.

The proposed California legislation would prevent public disclosure of the home addresses of those public health officials. It’s unfortunate, but seemingly necessary. It might be less so if high-profile Republicans like Paul would quit treating experts’ informed medical advice as if it’s an attack on liberty.

During a Senate hearing last week, Paul (himself a physician) renewed his diatribe against Fauci for continuing to warn that America is reopening too quickly. “We need to not be so presumptuous that we know everything,” Paul told him. Never mind that Fauci has been warning America for months that dropping defenses too quickly would spawn a virus resurgence — which is exactly what is now happening across most states, including Missouri.

Doctors aren’t the enemy; the coronavirus is. The sooner conservative leaders set the right example and stop politicizing this health crisis, the sooner America can get through it.

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