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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

A COVID-19 culture war that can kill us

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to burn its way through America and the world and millions hunker down in their homes, many of the cultural issues that only recently sparked fierce debate now seem oddly irrelevant.

Does anyone want to argue about politically correct language when we’re facing disaster?

These days, a “safe space” is one in which you are protected from a deadly infection, not from offensive ideas. Even the controversy over President Donald Trump’s attempt to troll the media by using the term “Chinese virus” faded quickly. And while a few feminists have tried to claim that women are hardest hit by the pandemic even though more men are dying, no one’s paying much attention.

But the culture wars haven’t gone away — they’ve only shifted focus. While the so-called social justice warriors on the left have mostly grown quiet, the culture warriors on the right have found a new battlefield in opposition to epidemic control measures. It’s a stance that is not only divisive but actively dangerous.

For weeks, right-wing media figures such as radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Laura Ingraham have been promoting a “no big deal” narrative about the COVID-19 epidemic (Limbaugh has even insisted that it’s nothing more than “the common cold”). They have also railed against stay-at-home orders intended to flatten the curve of the virus and curb the spread of the disease. Some have backed away from that position now that Trump seems to take the coronavirus seriously and has abandoned his plan to “reopen” America by Easter. Yet Limbaugh still insists that the epidemic is overrated and grumbling that our response to it is dictated by unelected health experts who are part of the insidious “Deep State.”

Conservative commentator, radio talk show host and frequent Fox News guest Jesse Kelly still rails against the quarantines on Twitter, warning that our economy is being turned into a “smoldering wreckage.” But the economy isn’t Kelly’s only concern; he believes that the epidemic is an excuse for leftists to turn America into a progressive tyranny. “We’re reporting our fellow citizens to the police, deciding which businesses are allowed to open, and arresting pastors for having a church service,” Kelly tweeted on Tuesday. “Coronavirus is not the deadliest thing we imported from China.”

Kelly has also connected the lockdown to his perennial theme of the liberal-driven decline of manhood in America: the lockdown, he says, shows that “we’ve apparently become the scared suburban housewife society,” cowering in our homes while being terrorized by “the prophets of doom.” The culture warriors seem to think that risking exposure to the coronavirus to save the economy is somehow akin to risking one’s life in battle. Apparently, they still haven’t realized that in this war, a person who becomes infected can quickly become an unwitting enemy weapon.

Other pundits on the far right are stoking hate toward the progressive, multicultural cities that are seen as strongholds of “blue” America and that are hardest hit by the coronavirus. Sean Davis, a contributor to The Federalist — a once-interesting conservative website that has become a home to crackpot conspiracy theories — recently lamented on Twitter that the rest of the country was being shut down “because New York City is a filthy, disease-ridden dystopia run by an incompetent communist.”

It’s not just a matter of vile rhetoric. The coronavirus deniers actively encourage people to defy the quarantine and promote conspiracy theories that depict the epidemic as a hoax.

This culture war could literally kill us.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.