(CNN)Almost since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States this spring, there’s been an active attempt — particularly by President Donald Trump — to downplay the severity of the disease and to suggest that the deaths it causes are being overestimated by Democrats and the media.
The latest conspiracy theory aimed at minimizing the human toll of Covid-19 is that only 6% of all deaths from the coronavirus are in people who have no other complicating conditions. This is, of course, total bunk, since whether or not someone had an underlying condition doesn’t change the fact that they died from Covid. Which any fact check (and any medical professional) will tell you. (The claim originates in a willful misreading of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis.)Trump retweeted the 6% claim. (Twitter removed the post for spreading false information.) And now Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who is in a very tough fight for a second term, got caught doing that same sort of funny math when it comes to the actual number of coronavirus cases and deaths.
Campaigning in Black Hawk County in the state’s eastern reaches, during the event’s question and answer period, a man told the Republican senator that he believed that the number of Covid-19 deaths was being severely exaggerated. To which Ernst, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, responded that she, too, was “so skeptical” of the mortality rate from the coronavirus, adding: “These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if Covid is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?”What evidence did Ernst provide for that MAJOR claim? Oh, none! In an interview after the event with the Waterloo paper, Ernst said only that “what I’ve heard” is that health care providers are saying that people died of Covid — or have Covid — even if they actually don’t. “They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a COVID-related illness or death,” added Ernst. “I heard the same thing on the news. … They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. … I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”Read MoreOoooh. On the news, eh? What channel? (I’ll give you one good guess.)Ernst is, of course, a sitting US senator. Which means that the bar for just saying stuff that she, uh, “heard” on the news is a lot higher than some random dude who approaches her at a campaign event. Especially when we are talking about a deadly virus that has already sickened more than 6 million Americans and left almost 185,000 dead. And which is projected to kill 317,000 Americans by December 1. And for which we have no vaccine or foolproof therapeutic.In short: It is deeply, deeply irresponsible for Ernst to engage in baseless speculation about some sort of overcount of Covid-19 deaths and/or insurance fraud being practiced by the health care industry. So, why do it?
THE POINT — NOW ON YOUTUBE!
In each episode of his weekly YouTube show, Chris Cillizza will delve a little deeper into the surreal world of politics. Click to subscribe!
Simple! Politics.Ernst knows that in order to win reelection this fall against businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, she need every single Trump vote in Iowa to vote for her too. (Trump won Iowa by 9 points in 2016, but polling in the Hawkeye State suggests the race is far closer this time around.) And Ernst knows that the President’s base is deeply skeptical of both a) how serious an illness Covid-19 actually is and b) whether it has actually killed more than 184,000 Americans. The reason Trump’s base carries that skepticism is not because of some set of, well, alternative facts, they are citing but because Trump himself has chosen to make the coronavirus — and the ways in which we can work to mitigate its spread — deeply political.Trump spent the first weeks of the pandemic insisting everything was entirely under control. Then he insisted the virus would disappear when the weather got warmer — or by a “miracle.” Then he claimed only 60,000 Americans would die from the coronavirus. (Only!) Then he blamed governors for not doing a good enough job. Then he pushed for states to reopen despite the fact that they had not met the federal criteria for doing so. Then he blamed those governors for opening too soon. Then he turned mask-wearing political, even seemingly mocking former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing one. Then — and now — his administration has acted as though the pandemic is over even though, again, we are projected to lose 317,000 Americans by December 1.
From top to bottom and beginning to end, Trump has seen the coronavirus less as the most serious public health threat America has faced in more than a century and more as a political problem. So it’s no surprise then that his base views the virus through an entirely political lens. And believe that any concession about the gravity of our fight against the virus is somehow unfaithful to Trump.While Ernst undoubtedly knows better, she also wants to win. And knows that to win, she has to have the Trump base 100% behind her. So, she indulges this conspiracy theory junk with zero proof other than, maybe, anecdotes she’s heard. It’s disappointing. But it’s not surprising.