Precautions, PPE, Punishment, and the Politics of Fear

The GOP loves to lay claim to folksy common sense wisdom but they have made a national policy of closing the barn door after the horse is out, and now a herd is running wild through their ranks.

Kellyanne Conway remonstrated her teenage daughter for having told the world they spent all day together even after the elder Conway’s positive test result for the coronavirus. Her correction: of her three tests, the first one was negative. She only got the positive results later.

Senator Ron Johnson didn’t even wait to see if his result was negative (it wasn’t) before going about his business, including mingling with GOP donors at a fundraiser.


In his own words: because he wasn’t sick, and therefore did not anticipate a positive test result.

These cases and others in the public eye demonstrate so much of what is wrong with the GOP approach to the virus, their method of handling – or more accurately, of failing to handle – it.

Despite taking her daughter to task for airing family business and speculating on medical matters, the fact remains: Kellyanne Conway got her own daughter sick. And she doesn’t appear to feel bad about it. In her mind, she’s still fully justified having spent the day exhaling viral particles into the air her family was breathing.


Because she wasn’t sick.

And precautions are for sick people.

Precautions, like isolating oneself after exposure or wearing a mask or staying home when possible, aren’t reasonable measures for reasonable people to take in order to protect oneself and each other, even one’s loved ones.

Precautions, in the GOP worldview, are a punishment to be inflicted upon the unworthy, those who have failed and caught the virus and been sickened by it.

Why should I stay home when I’m not sick? Why should I isolate myself in a corner of the house away from my family when I’m not sick? Why should I wear a mask when there’s nothing wrong with me?

Isolating the sick makes sense to the GOP – shun the unclean! Shun the unworthy! Leave the weak to fend for themselves!

Isolating oneself after exposure? Sacrifice for the good of others is for people who have done something wrong, so if you’ve done nothing wrong, you shouldn’t have to give anything up. That’s their position.

Leaving aside for a moment the blinkered cruelty of this worldview, the superspreader event at the White House and more particularly the way the virus tore through an interconnected network of people who have more access to rapid testing than anyone else in the country shows the folly of it. They might as well ask, “Why should I shut the barn door before the horse has left?”

The now-classic line of argument GOP figureheads use on the news shows in order to attack the Biden camp for things like mask use is things along the lines of “it’s fine when it makes sense”. What they mean is: they’re a fitting punishment for the unworthy.

The Pence camp was outraged that the Democrats insisted on plexiglass barriers for the vice presidential debate. Why? What does it hurt? Even if they think it’s unnecessary, it still plays into their rhetoric that Biden and company are timid and fearful around the virus. They should welcome it as a PR coup (if they think their messaging is working, which is a big if at this point). “Well, if it makes Joe feel better,” and all that.

But Pence is angry at the implication that Senator Kamala Harris doesn’t want to be exposed to him. He’s done nothing wrong. He’s not one of the unclean. He’s not even sick. Why should he be punished?

This kind of attitude is not limited to political elites, and it would always have been an obstacle in getting a country riddled with privileged, culturally WASP-ish people who subscribe to a worldview that divides humanity into degrees of worthiness.

But that’s exactly why, in this moment, we require leadership from the top down that sets the right example. The right loves to say we have to learn to live with COVID-19 and we can’t spend our lives in fear.

On these counts, I’m inclined to agree with them. I just wish they would listen to scientists and medical experts who have been telling us how we can get on with our lives. We’d have so much less to fear from the virus if everybody or even nearly everyone was both willing and able to limit their potential exposure, to quarantine themselves after exposure, and to practice multiple levels of precaution when interacting with each other.

Other countries have a much better handle on the virus. There are countries where fewer people have died than just tested positive in this country as a result of Trump’s personal aura of miasma. There are countries with fewer active cases than there are in the top tier of the Republican Party.

We could all be getting on with our lives right now, if the leadership in our country would set the example that precautions are not a punishment to be avoided but reasonable steps for getting on with our lives without fear.