“We’ve rounded the corner on the coronavirus,” said Donald Trump. Two days later, he rounded that corner straight into Walter Reed Military Hospital, himself the victim of the virus he had downplayed since February.
There have been many difficult things to watch over the last number of months, but the most difficult has been the ultimate cost of political manipulation: human lives. While American politics is fascinating at present – even those who say they despise it can’t help but watch it – the result has been a tragedy perhaps more acute than anything Shakespeare could write.
Beneath all of it – the prevarications, blatant falsehoods, intimidation of public institutions, the slumming of democracy, and the loss of human dignity – is the troubling recognition that politics itself kills and does so on a massive scale if abused. This sounds harsh, but it’s happening.
When political decisions are made to send troops into conflict overseas, politicians themselves understand that it is likely the most important decision they will ever make. And the reason is simple: such decisions will ultimately mean death for many, and not just your own soldiers. But what happens when that war is a political one, at home, in plain sight, and deadly?
We know from Bob Woodward’s best-selling book Rage that the American president knew back in January/February that the coronavirus was a deadly thing and could wreak havoc on human life. But at some point, he came to believe that by denying that very fact in word and action would win him a second term is one of the most troubling scenarios to ever emerge from the White House. That decision to fight for political survival condemned over 200,000 Americans to death in the process.
It’s awful. We hate and recoil and the very nakedness of such political craving. Yet we have to understand that this is a global phenomenon, not just an American one. Politics is everywhere and bad politics of this kind always claims as its greatest price the death of humans and humanity.
There will be some wishing to deny this, but reams of coronavirus data show that mortality itself is greater danger from authoritarian regimes than progressive ones. This isn’t meant to be a political or partisan statement: it just is, as the research shows.
Consider the death tolls in countries like New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Germany, Taiwan, France or even South Korea and compare them to mounting totals of death in Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Russia, Belarus, even Britain and America. The contrast is stark. Those nations led by sound public policy and dependence on science have fared significantly better than those led by authoritarians who consistently denied such values in order to expand their power and destabilize the public good. We’re not talking about political ideology here, but the practices utilized by brutal personalities who will use whatever political ploy needed to gain and keep power.
It happens in nations we wouldn’t have expected – like America. It’s true that the nation to the south of us is a divided one politically, but its roughly evenly divided. Of the 51 states, 25 have Democratic governors and 26 have Republican ones. And those divisions sometimes mask what they have in common – similar healthcare policies, same free market economies, and open societies. And yet one individual, blinded by ambition and supported by an official party fearful of redundancy and millions of citizens fearful for their future, has somehow engineered all those commonalities in such a way that hundreds of thousands ended up dying by stupid, blind and, sadly, killer politics.
What are we to do with the recent data showing that those Republican states supporting Donald Trump have double the COVID death rate of the Democratic ones – more than double in fact? It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats, it’s about those throwing their support behind authoritarianism and those who don’t. Around the world, this is being played out every day. Some 36 million have contracted the disease and over a million have perished – with more to come.
Our enemy is not COVID but autocracy. Yet, strangely, they have the same motive: survival. The former kills for the sake of staying alive, the latter for staying in power. This pandemic can be defeated by the kind of politics that can collaborate, but it will continue to run like a fire through our populations if ambitious political meddling counts human mortality as just one of those prices to be paid in order to sit on the throne. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is by the simple stroke of a pencil on a piece of paper or a lick on an online ballot – a reminder that only citizens can stave of despotism in a democracy.
“Stop playing politics with peoples’ lives,” is a phrase frequently heard in elections. The problem with Election 2020 in America is that this time we are literally talking about life and death. Bad politics kills good people; only good politics can save them from such a fate.