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Bret Stephens: Let’s end the COVID blame games

It shouldn’t be beyond asking that we stop being beastly to others. We are all riding out the same storm.

(Jerome Delay | AP photo) People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. Scientists say it is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country's most populous province.

Over the summer, as COVID cases started rising from their midyear lows, it became popular to blame Republicans for fueling the pandemic. The argument was that COVID had become a red-state scourge because of lower rates of mask-wearing and vaccination — along with high doses of vaccine misinformation — in places that went heavily for Donald Trump.

It even seemed true for a while, with states like Florida, Alabama and Louisiana suffering from a huge surge in cases. But the virus has had a way of making fools of us all.

Take Vermont, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation and where Joe Biden took 66% of the vote. Because of the delta variant’s vigorous attack on even the relatively small number of unvaccinated Vermonters, the state has experienced one of the biggest recent COVID surges, with hospitalizations up by 24% in the past two weeks. In Santa Fe County, New Mexico, where Biden won with 76% and 74% of the population is fully vaccinated, hospitalizations are up by 40%.

You’ll find similar trends in Hennepin County, Minnesota (Biden, 70%), where vaccination rates are high; and in Wayne County, Michigan (Biden, 68%), where vaccination rates are relatively low.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and other red states, cases have plummeted after earlier surges swept through, leaving many with immunity.

We’ll see how long things will stay that way, especially if (or, rather, once) the omicron variant hits American shores. But here’s a plea for when it does: Let’s put an end to the partisan COVID blame games. They’re pointless, divisive and dumb.

Consider the record of COVID score-settling thus far:

COVID is mainly a problem of the big cities! But then it became a tragedy for rural America. (And yes, this is me pleading guilty to a bad argument in the pandemic’s early days, when I thought population density would be the main driver of transmission.)

The lab-leak theory is racist right-wing conspiracy talk! Um, except the argument is far from settled on whether or not it’s true.

Andrew Cuomo is a model of crisis management! But then it turned out that the disgraced former governor was guilty of one of the worst political decisions in the early months of the pandemic, when he forced New York’s nursing homes to take back patients who had been hospitalized with COVID and later tried to cover up the blunder.

Ron DeSantis is a model of crisis management! The Florida governor did, in fact, do well in the early months of the crisis, when he focused state resources on protecting the elderly, only to later preside over a gigantic spike in cases.

Trump is responsible for hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths that might have been avoided if only someone else had been in the White House! But now Biden has presided over even more deaths, not that anyone should blame him for it.

Anti-vax myths are being driven by right-wing liars! But then people like Sean Hannity of Fox News and Christopher Ruddy of Newsmax urged people to get their shots, while the bulk of vaccine misinformation on social media came from characters like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Rizza Islam of the Nation of Islam and other alternative-medicine quacks of mostly unguessable political views.

Germany is a model of intelligent consensus-driven action when it comes to public health! But vaccination rates among Germans are still relatively low, mistrust of government is depressingly high, and cases are soaring.

Sweden is a model of good sense when it comes to lockdowns! Well, the Swedes, who avoided lockdowns, have fared relatively better than Spain or Britain, which locked down repeatedly. But, as Bloomberg’s Justin Fox points out, the Swedes also fared considerably worse than their Scandinavian neighbors, who took stricter precautions.

The list goes on. There were those on the right who predicted an end to the pandemic based on expected herd-immunity thresholds. There were those on the left who foresaw an end based on vaccination rates. Nature — on the one hand viral and the other hand human — embarrassed them both. If the omicron variant is anything like the delta one in its transmissibility, it will embarrass them again.

So here are some modest pleas coming out of this Thanksgiving season.

Let’s put away our crystal balls and shake up our snow globes instead. We have about as much foresight in this crisis as a snowman in a blizzard.

Let’s quit arguing that COVID is a red- or blue-state thing. Yes, Republican areas have tended to have lower vaccination rates, but disease trends have a way of switching directions for reasons none of us really understands.

Let’s stop imputing bad faith or recklessness or greed to our partisan opponents. They have loved ones who are just as much at risk of infection as our own.

Let’s accept that people have needs and ideas that differ from ours, whether on account of health status, livelihood or deep-seated belief. Lectures, condescension and scorn aren’t going to change the way they think.

I have no idea what omicron will bring and very slight hopes that we’ll be able to exercise any effective form of control over it. But it shouldn’t be beyond asking that we stop being beastly to others. We are all riding out the same storm.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.

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