Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

DeSantis Politicizing COVID-19 Against Special Olympics Athletes

Phil Garber
6 min readJun 10, 2022

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President Ronald Reagan refused to even utter the word AIDS and meanwhile millions of people died of a disease that was just too politically toxic to discuss.
President trump politicized the COVID-19 pandemic by either minimizing its deadly effects, touting bogus treatments or making wild misstatements about how “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Trump’s criminal inaction led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
It’s done all the time, whether it’s politicizing vaccines, climate change, gun control, AIDS or the COVID-19 pandemic and decisions made in the name of patriotism, freedom and winning votes have deadly effects.
Now we turn to Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, desperate to fill trump’s shoes at the white house. DeSantis stooped as low as selling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” T-shirts on his campaign to capitalize on right wing anger toward Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
Fauci has stripped Disney’s special tax status after its chief executive said the company would pause all political donations in the state after DeSantis signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He has captained efforts to bar teachers from discussing issues involving sex and the nation’s legacy from slavery.
Fauci has tried to claim the crown as a national leader in opposing any government mandates to close businesses because of the pandemic, a pandemic that he has downplayed while accusing the Biden administration of exaggerating the extent and dangers.
So it should come as no surprise that an audit released by the state of Florida on Monday suggests that information that the state released to the public during the early months of the pandemic was inaccurate and incomplete. The report, conducted over the past year by the Florida Auditor General, examined the state’s COVID-19 response from March to October 2020.
DeSantis frequently downplayed the dangers of the virus, and even made campaign materials that were critical of national health officials who implored people to take the pandemic more seriously.
Florida is currently seeing an increase in case numbers, reporting nearly 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day over the past two weeks. More than 74,700 Floridians have died due to coronavirus since the pandemic began more than two years ago — a figure that’s equivalent to the entire population of Daytona Beach.

DeSantis claims to be leading the holy crusade against governmental mandates including opposition to collective action to stem COVID-19, like mask mandates and vaccine requirements. He signed legislation that lets workers to opt out of private employers’ vaccine requirements and he’s offering a $5,000 bonus for police who refuse vaccinations.
Now, the governor, who has railed against scientific findings about such issues as COVID-19 to climate change, has turned his political gun sites on an organization that has benefited millions of people with intellectual and other disabilities, the Special Olympics. DeSantis threatened to fine the organization $27.5 million if it did not lift its requirement that athletes be vaccinated against COVID-19. The organization quickly capitulated to the extortion and ended its vaccine mandate as such a monstrous fine could have bankrupted the organization that has helped millions of people with intellectual and other disabilities.
Of course, DeSantis levied his bullying threats on the eve of the start of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games being held at venues throughout Florida, a time when he can get maximum media coverage in his ongoing campaign to appeal to science-disbelieving Republicans. More than 500 athletes and partners competed in 19 sports at the games to run through June 12.
DeSantis’s blackmail is so transparently political and so vile and despicable because many studies have shown that people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, are particularly at risk of contracting many diseases, including COVID-19. And at the same time, people with such disabilities may have limited abilities to take precautions, including distancing, masks and hand washing while they also are prone to being unable to express symptoms.
DeSantis took the proven lifesaving value of vaccines for people with disabilities and turned it on its cynical, political head.
“What connection that has to competing, I don’t understand,” he said. “We’ve never seen something wielded like this vaccine to try to marginalize disfavored people.”
Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is a global organization in 193 countries involving 5.5 million athletes. Men and women athletes train throughout the year to compete in various events, including track and field, weight lifting, swimming, bowling, softball, basketball, skiing, football and badminton.
Many Special Olympics athletes have Down syndrome, a result of having an extra chromosome 21, causing mild to moderate intellectual disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 6,000 babies are born in the United States each year with Down syndrome, or approximately 1 out of every 691 live births. People with Down syndrome are at increased risk for a range of other health conditions, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, problems with hormones and glands, hearing loss, vision problems, and heart abnormalities.
People with intellectual disabilities are considered a high-risk group for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The most important risk for these people is a lack of access to healthcare.
“Despite severe need and higher health risks, people with intellectual disabilities lack equitable access to health services and die, on average, 16 years earlier than the general population,” the CDC reported.
A statement from Special Olympics noted that higher rates of chronic health conditions put people with intellectual disabilities at a higher risk of serious illness and poorer outcomes from COVID-19. For example, people with Down syndrome can have compromised immune systems and smaller airways, which make them more susceptible to respiratory illnesses. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities. Those who have existing medical conditions, including breathing problems, are also at increased risk for COVID-19.
A sizeable number of Special Olympians have cerebral palsy, another group listed by the CDC as at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Dr. Joline Brandenburg of the Mayo Clinic said in an interview that people with cerebral palsy who contract a respiratory disease, like COVID-19, are at higher risk for complications because they cannot adequately regulate their diaphragm and breathe if their health is impaired.
Research has shown that people with intellectual disabilities are six times more likely to die from COVID-19 than other people, according to Jane Tobias, director of the Center for Autism and Neurodiversity at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia.
In addition to the physical issues, Tobias said people with intellectual disabilities are more prone to the virus because they more often live in group homes; use shared transportation; are exposed to people outside their households, including therapists and other providers; and struggle with precautions like mask-wearing. Tobias said that “rapid vaccination of people with intellectual disabilities is essential to protecting this population during the pandemic.”
AIDS was first reported in the medical and mainstream press in 1981, but it took another six years before Reagan publicly spoke about the AIDS epidemic in a major policy address. By the end of that year, 59,572 AIDS cases had been reported and 27,909 women and men had died. The Reagan administration did almost nothing during the first seven years of the epidemic, chronically underfunding AIDS, community education and prevention programs.
On Jan. 22, 2020, trump proclaimed, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
As early as March of 2020, trump was saying America would “soon” reopen for business as political and business leaders from both parties grappled with the “lives versus livelihoods” calculus of pandemic strategizing. In the time from when trump proclaimed that COVID-19 would disappear, to the end of his administration, 402,269 Americans died.
And the pressure from the right wing continues with DeSantis doing all he can to be anointed as the governor who refused to follow science and led people to their deaths.

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Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer