The pandemic has faded, but one of the least understood effects of the virus still eludes treatment: There is no known cure for long covidiocy.
House Republicans presented with a textbook case of the ailment this week. The newly formed select subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic met for the first time for what its chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), said would be some “Monday-morning quarterbacking.” It instead became a Tuesday afternoon of false starts and illegal blocks.
Republicans on the panel, some of them medical doctors and others just playing one on TV, offered their predictable assessments. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) kicked off with the unsupported allegation that “covid was intentionally released” from a Chinese lab because “it would be impossible for the virus to be accidentally leaked.”
Rep. Richard McCormick (R-Ga.) advanced the ball by informing the panel that coronavirus booster shots “do more harm than good.”
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And then Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) scored with this extraordinary medical discovery: “Researchers found that the vaccinated are at least twice as likely to be infected with covid as the unvaccinated and those with natural immunity.”
Vaccines make you more likely to get covid! Thank you, Dr. Jewish Space Lasers.
But the panel’s greatest contribution to the science of misdirection was to feature as witnesses three scientists who arguably did more than all others to champion a herd-immunity approach to covid. Two of them were co-authors of the “Great Barrington Declaration,” put out by a Koch-backed group, which argued in 2020 for letting the virus run wild through the population while somehow segregating the old and vulnerable.
Had they prevailed in making herd immunity the official policy, hundreds of thousands more Americans might have died. As it was, President Donald Trump and GOP governors used these scientists’ claims disparaging face masks, isolation and vaccines to whip up resistance to public health restrictions.
One of the witnesses, Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins surgeon and Fox News regular, used the committee meeting to present a new variant of covidiocy. He declared with absolute certainty that the virus came from a Wuhan lab.
“It’s a no-brainer that it came from a lab,” he declared. What’s more, “at this point it’s impossible to acquire any more information, and if you did it would only be in the affirmative.” He even suggested that two of the nation’s top virologists knew this but “changed their tunes” because they were bribed with grant money by Anthony Fauci.
How’s that for sound science? Some (including, now, the “low confidence” Energy Department) believe the virus came from a lab. Others think it occurred naturally. Nobody knows for sure — except Makary. And he knows with equal certainty that whatever unknown evidence might emerge will back him up.
You didn’t need a peer-reviewed study to anticipate this sort of nonsense would occur.
Makary is the guy who predicted in late February 2021 that “covid will be mostly gone by April.” He was also the source of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s dubious claim that face masks cause unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide in children’s blood.
Another witness, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University (also a Fox News regular, on matters medical and nonmedical), had called coronavirus testing “actively harmful” and warned about “great harm” and “danger” from vaccination. He worked on a study that claimed the covid death rate was similar to the flu’s, and he argued in March 2020 that “there’s little evidence” that “the novel coronavirus would kill millions” if left unchecked.
The three had top-notch academic credentials, and they wore well the professorial-shabby look: One had a hole in his suit-jacket elbow, another slung a parka over his chair, and the third wore Hurley athletic socks with his business suit. But when they spoke, their tone was less scholarly sobriety than cable-news combat.
Makary, mocking “King Fauci,” claimed that “the greatest perpetrator of misinformation during the pandemic has been the United States government.” Bhattacharya repeatedly complained that he and the other scientists had been “censored,” “marginalized” and “slandered” by public health “dictators.” The other witness, Swedish epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff, called covid restrictions “the worst assault” on the poor and middle class “since segregation.”
In the witnesses’ telling, public health officials and scientists were wrong about everything — masks, vaccines, natural immunity, shutdowns — while the dissidents were unerring. Bhattacharya claimed the “harsh countermeasures” against covid “failed to protect Americans” while ensuring that people “will never trust public health authorities again.”
That’s rich. Far from being marginalized, these critics became right-wing celebrities and were embraced by the Trump administration. Their ideas helped power resistance to masks and vaccines — at the cost of untold lives. Now they’re blaming the debacle on the public health officials whose advice they encouraged Americans to resist.
There is an important debate to be had about the effectiveness of school closures and vaccine mandates. Officials working with limited information made a lot of mistakes. But those seeking honest answers will apparently have to look somewhere other than the select covidiocy committee.
This lone Republican knows how to get stuff done
It doesn’t have to be this way. Ask Mike Gallagher. The Wisconsin Republican has been put in charge of the new House select committee on the Chinese Communist Party — and the chairman so far is turning his panel into everything the covid committee isn’t: bipartisan, serious and productive.
“This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century, and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake,” he said in opening the panel’s prime-time hearing Tuesday — the same day the covid committee held its frivolous forum. “Time is not on our side. Just because this Congress is divided, we cannot afford to waste the next two years lingering in legislative limbo or pandering to the press.”
He took no partisan shots, and he screened “a joint video that the ranking member and I put together to help set the stage for the hearing.” That ranking Democrat, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), reciprocated by acknowledging that “both Democrats and Republicans underestimated the CCP” and praising the bipartisanship and “our unity as Americans.”
The witnesses (including two former Trump advisers) and other lawmakers maintained the feel-good sentiment, what Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) described as “Republicans and Democrats working together to expose the malign activities of the CCP.”
The only dissent in the room came from a pair of hecklers from the far-left group Code Pink, waving signs that said “China is not our enemy” and “Stop Asian Hate.”
Gallagher waited patiently for them to be removed. “Your sign is upside down,” he told the “Stop Asian Hate” guy, who then righted his poster.
A couple of the Democrats obliquely referenced the racist remarks of Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.), who (on Fox News, naturally) had challenged the loyalty to the United States of Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who is Chinese American. But Gallagher had already called that “out of bounds” during a joint interview with Krishnamoorthi on CBS’s “Face the Nation” — one of multiple joint appearances and statements by the pair.
Gallagher is exactly the sort of person you want in this role as China’s growing aggression pushes us toward a new cold war. A 39-year-old Princeton graduate and former Marine captain with a PhD in international relations, he noted with satisfaction this week that his panel has “no bomb throwers.”
Gallagher, by Krishnamoorthi’s account, worked closely with Democrats to draft a rules package that will guide the panel over the next two years — “a bipartisan agreement that has my full support.” It passed Tuesday without debate, amendment or a single dissenting vote.
That’s what happens when a leader puts country before party.
Yet another far-right extremist gets the seat of honor
And then there are leaders such as James Comer. The Kentucky Republican, chairman of the House Oversight Committee (which includes the covid select subcommittee), has shown himself to be a bear of very little brain.
Last week, he sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the Ohio train derailment in which he referred to “DOT’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)” and demanded of Buttigieg “all documents and communications regarding NTSB’s progress on the cause of the derailment.”
Buttigieg responded by saying he was “alarmed to learn that the chair of the House Oversight Committee thinks that the NTSB is part of our department. NTSB is independent (and with good reason).”
Comer, on Fox News, claimed it was “a typo” — a 19-word typo, it would seem.
Then, this week, Comer paused in his frequent (and sometimes contradictory) attacks on Hunter Biden to disparage the integrity of the president’s other son, Beau — who is not able to defend himself because he died of brain cancer in 2015.
Comer said on a Lou Dobbs podcast that “it was Beau Biden, the president’s other son, that was involved in some campaign donations from a person that got indicted” and “Joe Biden was involved in some of these campaign donations.” Comer suggested the president’s late son should have been prosecuted.
Alas, more of the House GOP committee chairs are following the Comer model of leadership than the Gallagher model, using their positions to give platforms to extremists. As I’ve noted, the House Energy and Commerce Committee joined Comer’s panel in elevating the voices of those who adhere to the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory.
Last month, Rep. Jim Jordan’s Judiciary Committee featured as a witness a man who is part of the far-right “constitutional sheriff” movement. Constitutional sheriffs — an outgrowth of the white-nationalist posse comitatus movement — claim they are above federal and state government and are the ultimate arbiters of the law. The nonprofit Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting (AZCIR) found that the witness, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, spoke at a constitutional-sheriff’s event and supports allowing sheriffs to nullify laws.
This week, it was the House Homeland Security Committee’s turn for some extremism. It hosted as a witness Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff Mark Lamb — another constitutional sheriff. Though eschewing the term, Lamb is the “frontman” for one constitutional-sheriff group, has spoken to a second and also supports nullification, AZCIR reports. A booster of the “Stop the Steal” rally (he called the Jan. 6 rioters “very loving, Christian people”) and anti-vaxxer movements (he refused to enforce the stay-at-home orders of Arizona’s Republican governor), he responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by creating a “Citizens Posse” of residents to be deputized at Lamb’s pleasure.
Little more than a week before he came to Washington, Lamb spoke at a Second Amendment rally attended by Oathkeepers, Proud Boys and other extremists. He teased a Senate run and took photos with a few Proud Boys.
And there he was, just 10 days later, at the witness table in the Homeland Security Committee’s hearing room. Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.) hailed Lamb’s “essential role in defending our nation’s homeland.”
This is precisely how Republican lawmakers bring dangerous extremists into the mainstream.