Last Sunday, my fiancée and I were celebrating our recent engagement with a weekend stay out in the Texas Hill Country. It was a special moment for us: Despite nixing plans to visit her family (where I’d originally planned to propose) due to the surging Delta variant, we’d found a safe way to steal a few days for ourselves. Everything was going wonderfully until breakfast that morning — when we were seated next to a table full of people spewing every Fox News anti-vaccine conspiracy under the sun.
The claims we overheard were as far-ranging as they were absurd. One man donning a white polo shirt declared that last year’s COVID-fueled shutdowns were all a ploy by Democrats to tank the economy under the former president. “There’s no way they’d do that now. It’s all a sham, even these stupid masks,” he said ignoring the server who was refilling his coffee while wearing a black face covering. “And it’s not like they’re going to give Trump the credit he deserves for the vaccine.”
His friend, who bore a striking resemblance to Roger Stone, countered with an even stranger and more disjointed claim. “My buddy told me there’s a website in Massachusetts that allows people to turn their neighbors in for not getting that shot. He sent it to me and it’s totally legit. What is this world coming to?” he demanded. I resisted the urge to request that he explain how someone could be turned in for something (not being vaccinated) that isn’t a crime.
Most of the folks seated at the table were older people. Picture “country club Republicans” who’ve gone full MAGA. But it was the youngest person, a woman in her late 20s wearing a tank top and a trucker hat, who made some of the most outrageous statements of all. She warmed up with a casual rejection of the existence of long COVID, a condition that can plague those inflicted with symptoms such as extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, depression, and brain fog for months at a time. Like many younger unvaccinated Americans, she added that she’d rather just get the virus than experience the after-effects of getting a shot. Then, she got upset.
“They’re trying to force us to get the vaccine,” she huffed, referring to the recent news that Google, where she works, is now requiring all in-office employees to be immunized. “What’s next, we’re like France? Tyrannically forcing people to put something in their arms that we can’t trust? Unvaccinated people are becoming second-class citizens in America. It’s straight out of 1984.”
By the end of it, my head was spinning. That’s because, while these sentiments are disturbing (and entirely unfactual, save for Google’s choice to protect its workforce against the rapidly mutating virus), they’re also entirely too common, thanks to Texas’ Republican leadership. Unsurprisingly, no official here bears more responsibility for this conspiratorial, anti-science thinking than Gov. Greg Abbott, who has repeatedly championed “personal freedom” on the topics of vaccines and face masks while simultaneously blaming immigrants at the border for surging COVID cases.
If these talking points sound fragmented, it’s because they are. But such is life the Lone Star State, where those in power can routinely downplay a worldwide pandemic approaching its second full year, weaponize that same pandemic to demonize immigrants and score political points, and then meekly suggest that residents should maybe, kind of, sort of, potentially consider getting a life-saving vaccine. It’s lazy. It’s cynical. It’s contradictory. It’s idiotic. And, most of all, it’s as Texas as Texas gets these days.
Of course, the ramifications of Abbott & Co.’s actions extend far beyond Twitter talking points and the typical stream of conservative media propaganda. With schools across the state set to return next week, administrators, superintendents, and teachers are grappling with the fallout from the governor’s springtime executive order that bans mask mandates on campus and in classes. Some of Texas’ biggest educational entities, including the Dallas Independent School District and the Austin Independent School District, have already announced that they’ll defy Abbott’s edict, with similar action expected elsewhere, too. Lawsuits against the order have been launched as well. But even if these challenges succeed, there will be countless municipalities around the state that won’t push back against the order.
The timing of all of this couldn’t be worse. The highly infectious Delta variant is ripping through Texas communities right now, spurring the sharpest spike in daily COVID infections in months. These cases aren’t mild, either: Major hospital systems are dangerously close to running out of available ICU beds due to the influx of patients (the overwhelming majority of whom are unvaccinated) with the virus. As of this writing, there are currently only two open ICU beds left in the Greater Austin area, which encompasses 2.3 million people across 11 counties. It’s incredibly saddening — and, as has been written time and time again, it’s entirely avoidable.
And yet, despite this latest influx of pain and trauma, Texas leaders appear anything but fazed. Instead of focusing on curbing COVID cases and increasing vaccination rates, they’re prioritizing a second special session centered around anti-voting legislation that will put democracy on the brink. Rather than reversing course on his anti-mask executive order — something Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson knows a thing or two about — to safeguard unvaccinated children statewide, Abbott hasn’t budged. Republican could focus on protecting millions of Texans instead of, say, worrying about college football. The problem is, they don’t want to and, barring a miracle, they won’t ever.
So, here we are once more, fighting to protect our communities, our loved ones, and our futures at a time when those holding the reins of power refuse to do so. If there’s one silver lining, it’s this: We know by now how resilient Texans are in the most difficult of times. I just hope we won’t always have to rely on that so heavily.