Susan J. Demas: The soul-crushing fight of parents battling right-wing COVID nihilism

No amount of evidence will convince Republicans to keep our kids safe in the pandemic

October 24, 2021 3:20 am

John Moore/Getty Images

Updated, 7:35 a.m., 10/24/21

If you had told me two years ago that there would be a movement of angry parents, however small, yawping against basic measures to stop their kids from getting sick and dying with the full backing of a major political party, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Sure, Americans have a long history of not caring about other people’s kids. There were, and are, no shortage of people willing to turn their backs on desperate migrant children at the border or kids in Flint and Benton Harbor facing a lifetime of health problems after lead exposure.

But you have to have tumbled pretty far down the rabbit hole not to prioritize the health and safety of your own children — and indignantly demand media attention and praise for it. 

Sadly, the pandemic seems to have scrambled some people’s brains and destroyed their basic parental instinct, because raging against masks in schools and COVID-19 vaccine mandates (which aren’t in Michigan schools and shots aren’t yet available for those under 12 anyway) is now a great way to get on your local teevee news broadcast. (Those wearing “I don’t co-parent with the government” T-shirts are unironically touting the deadbeat dad anthem).

Let’s be clear: Most of these efforts are being organized and bankrolled by national right-wing groups whose wealthy donors are cynically willing to run up the body count during the pandemic if that means they can get more Republicans elected next year who will keep their taxes low.

But if seeing other parents proudly yell about endangering their kids and yours leaves you revolted and shaken, that’s completely natural. Of course images of people holding “Unmask our children” signs and protesting overworked hospital workers over vaccines will burrow into your brain. But it’s important to remember these are deeply damaged people who are vastly outnumbered by the sane majority.

Anti-mask sign at a right-wing rally calling for a so-called “audit” of the 2020 election at the Michigan Capitol, Oct. 12, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

Most people are vaccinated. Most are just fine with masks because part of being a decent parent is being willing to walk through fire to save your kids.

Most of us are utterly horrified that almost 22,000 people have died in Michigan and more than 10% of the population — 1.1 million — has been sickened by COVID. We’re almost at a national death toll of three-quarter-million Americans and there have been a staggering 45 million cases.

We don’t really talk much about these numbers anymore, much less take time to grieve. But it never had to be this way. And anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are determined to make sure we keep living in hell.

As if this isn’t enough, we know that more than 3,200 children in Michigan — more than 40% of whom are African American — have lost a primary caregiver to COVID in the first 15 months of the pandemic alone. Nationally, about 140,000 kids are dealing with the biggest loss imaginable, on top of all the other stress the pandemic has wrought in school, friendships, activities and their health.

As schools have gone back to in-person learning, pediatric COVID cases are on the rise. And we know now that schools with mask requirements have fewer outbreaks than those that don’t.

Given what we know about how to stop COVID’s spread — which is one huge advantage we have now over March 2020 when the first Michiganders were diagnosed — you would think this would cause some sweeping policy changes.

You would think that Republican leaders who have fought COVID restrictions from the jump and are bizarrely hostile to masks and vaccines would have a change of heart. 

After all, who wants to see kids get sick and die? Doing whatever it takes to stop that is the bare minimum of the job of a public servant. 

But Michigan GOP leaders who have tried to strip funding from local health departments issuing school mask requirements won’t let up, even as health officials, doctors and nurses have detailed the harrowing violence they face every day while trying to save lives. 

Republicans like Rep. Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.) don’t appear to care. He’s still asking the attorney general to sign off on county boards firing public health officials for mask orders. House Oversight Committee Chair Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), who occasionally says something nice about journalists he likes so is sometimes confused for being reasonable, is still posting screeds about “unpopular and draconian” school mask policies and ominously declaring President Biden’s vaccine and testing requirements are an “unconstitutional power grab by the federal government must be stopped.”

Perhaps the most depressing part of all of this is that everyone knows that no amount of evidence — indeed, no amount of jammed emergency rooms or bodies stacked up in morgues — will move Republicans off their COVID nihilism.

– Susan J. Demas

Perhaps the most depressing part of all of this is that everyone knows that no amount of evidence — indeed, no amount of jammed emergency rooms or bodies stacked up in morgues — will move Republicans off their COVID nihilism.

What do you do when leaders reject the most basic standard of decency?

Many reporters, at this point, have largely given up on even asking Republicans to respond to developments like rising child COVID cases or studies showing the efficacy of masks in schools because they’re so dug in. That’s a natural impulse — who wants to keep probing people so detached from reality that they fundamentally add nothing to our understanding of issues — but it inadvertently can let bad actors with enormous power off the hook. 

So where’s the Democratic governor in all this? 

Oh, there’s still a notable moral distinction between Gretchen Whitmer and the pro-COVID GOP — she believes in science and has encouraged school mask requirements. But that’s a sharp contrast with her strict health orders that helped save thousands of lives and made her a national hero early on in the pandemic. 

I have no special insight into why Whitmer has decided to appease selfish screamers, other than she appears to be running a ‘90s-style focus-grouped reelection campaign very different than her successful progressive bid in 2018.

Meanwhile, millions of parents feel despondent and alone in the neverending fight to keep our kids safe. Don’t we deserve to have someone fighting for us?

Correction: The column initially incorrectly stated the national COVID death toll.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.