The Unique Terror of Being a COVID Scientist After Jan. 6

·4 min read
Alex Wong/Getty
Alex Wong/Getty

Being a scientist was not exactly fun during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in America. But somehow, even as cases and deaths are way down in the United States, the attacks on us are worse than ever.

Take Anthony Fauci, a punching bag for the far right since the earliest days of the outbreak. The “Fire Fauci Act,” a twisted piece of legislation first introduced by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in April, gained additional Republican support this past week, now reaching at least a dozen House members.

That leaders of the GOP would go out of their way to reduce Dr. Fauci’s salary to zero and ultimately force his retirement must be examined for what it really is. This is no simple beef with someone who was frequently targeted by the administration and its allies under Donald Trump. It is, instead, a piece of a much larger and systematic anti-science project on the far right, one that is increasingly hard to separate from the Stop the Steal myth powering the right-wing fringe.

Fauci Fires Back at ‘Very Dangerous’ GOP Attacks: ‘Just Painfully Ridiculous’

The attacks accelerated in the first half of 2020, when the Trump White House embarked on a deliberate anti-science disinformation campaign. The explicit language both from the president and his staff members: COVID-19 was a hoax, or else the death toll was a result of causes other than the virus. Hospital admissions reflected a catch-up in elective surgeries, and social distancing was discouraged in favor of promoting ridiculously low benchmarks for herd immunity. In response, many red-state governors prematurely relaxed social distancing and mask measures, stoking terrible waves of COVID-19 across southern states in the summer and the Midwest in the fall of 2020. Thousands lost their lives.

Also in the mix was the outrageous White House conspiracy that the Chinese Communist Party ignited the epidemic in the U.S, possibly by sending infected people into our country. Trump suggested he would fire Fauci—who he said disagreed with his Chinese travel ban—after the election, unleashing a steady stream of similar calls.

But it did not stop there. Dr. Peter Daszak, just to take one example—the head of the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance—has been routinely hounded by right-wing media as part of their fixation on the (still unresolved) Wuhan Lab Leak hypothesis. GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher has outrageously gone so far as to suggest Daszak may have conspired to block a fair probe of what happened. Scripps Research Institute virologist Kristian Andersen has had to deactivate his Twitter account due to similar aggression.

I’m also personally threatened by emails, phone calls, and on social media for my views on vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccinations. They mostly have far-right and even white nationalist leanings, telling me about impending attacks from “patriots,” some imbued with Nazi imagery. As one colleague eloquently said to me recently in a text: “It’s like a slow moving train coming right for us. We have more lethally armed extremists in the U.S. than anywhere, and GOP members of Congress are whipping them up right now.”

I agree with Dr. Fauci when he says that these personal attacks represent an assault on American science. But this targeting has even greater implications.

In the early 20th century, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky once commented that “without science, democracy has no future.” Josef Stalin understood this well and banished scientists to die or face execution in gulags during the time of the Great Purge of the 1930s, and in years afterwards. Stalin saw scientists as a threat to his ability to maintain the U.S.S.R. as a totalitarian state. Purging scientists was on his critical path to total control. It’s why also similar authoritarian government-led attacks on scientists are now happening in Brazil, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

In their quest to reassert political dominance in the aftermath of the disaster that was Jan. 6, ranking members of the GOP, including House Republicans, feel a need to target us. They are almost certainly aware that their public statements represent dog whistles to thousands of armed individuals linked to far-right extremism. It’s no coincidence that one of the first guilty pleas in connection with the Capitol riot involved someone carrying an anti-vaxxer propaganda sign. Ultimately, the far-right hunt for biomedical scientists represents an essential element for totalitarian control that goes back almost 100 years.

In this context, moral courage and standing up for democratic values demands that the American people throw their full support behind scientists and scientific institutions. To do otherwise is to capitulate to the forces of insurrection.

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