Worse still, they arranged the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus. As medical director of the vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization program at the Department of Health, Dr. Fiscus was the state’s top vaccine authority. “It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against Covid-19,” she wrote in a statement. “I have been terminated for doing my job because some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with the medical experts.”
The politicization of public discourse around immunization is not unique to Tennessee. The question isn’t why Tennessee is so out of step with science. The question is why politics has anything to do with health policy at all.
The planet is growing more crowded, bringing people into closer contact with diverse animal and human populations. At the same time, the health risks associated with climate change are ratcheting upward. But just as protection against communicable diseases becomes increasingly urgent, conservative media outlets are sowing doubt and delusion in the Republican base, and feckless elected officials are following suit. Like Mr. Lee, his licked finger held aloft in the wind of rural white discontent, other Republican leaders in the South take their lifesaving vaccines in private and give lip service to perverse notions of “freedom” in their public statements.
Campaign funding from the national oligarchs is what sets legislative agendas across the red states, so I can understand why these penny-ante politicians are working so hard to limit tax-funded safety nets. I can even understand why they’re so hell bent on killing public education. It clearly benefits the wealthy for taxes to be low or nonexistent and for poor people to be incurious and compliant. But how can it possibly benefit the oligarchs to risk the lives of the very people who keep electing their toadies to statehouses in the first place? I just don’t get it.
“I am afraid for my state,” Dr. Fiscus wrote. I am afraid for my state, too. More than that, I’m afraid for my country. Tech companies won’t stop the spread of misinformation about vaccines, and conservative leaders can’t rouse the political will to combat that misinformation with science.
I’m not saying all is lost. Even in Tennessee, 43 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, and 38 percent are fully vaccinated. People are hugging one another and kissing babies again, but people are also continuing to die for no good reason. Their stubborn refusal to take a lifesaving vaccine is more than a pity, and it’s more than a waste. It’s a tragedy, a sign that we have squandered our miracle. I have no faith that we will be given another.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”