Last Wednesday night was the Vice Presidential debate. We saw a shining example of Vice President Mike Pence trying not only to interrupt Senator Kamala Harris, but force her to answer his questions. We have all seen the memes of a fly landing on the Vice President’s head and Karen Pence ignoring COVID protocol by walking on stage without a mask. Not once during either the presidential or vice presidential debates were candidates asked about queer or trans rights. Overall, the 2020 debates told us nothing new about the candidates, but did make me think of Mike Pence’s public health experience when he speaks of his capabilities as head of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force.
In 2015, Pence was the governor of Indiana and the small, rural town of Austin, Indiana was experiencing an HIV outbreak that has now been linked to over 200 cases. In a population of 4,300. That’s a 4.6% infection rate, or the same as Tanzania. When health authorities called for the governor’s help in curbing the spread of HIV among the IV drug using population, he said he would pray on what to do. Local health officials were hoping to set up needle exchange programs, but Mike Pence said he didn’t “believe effective anti-drug policy involved handing out drug paraphernalia.” Just so we are all clear, needle exchange programs (Also known as Syringe Services Programs, or SSPs) don’t make people start using IV drugs; they can actually halt the spread of HIV and other infectious diseases and can help people get into treatment programs. When Mike Pence decided to allow individual communities limited abilities when seeking approval for these infection-halting programs, that was a policy choice. As the state of Indiana debates ending these programs next year, that is a policy choice. Pence chose to ignore the facts of officials and experts when a public health crisis was mounting before him, resulting in lasting damage. He is choosing to do the same as COVID-19 continues to cause over 50,000 cases in the US each day.
As the former governor sits at the helm of one of the most important task forces in US history, Mike Pence aids in the manipulation of critical information that has the ability to save tens of thousands of lives. He could make the choice to have a federal mask mandate. But he doesn’t. Estimates show that local and state mask mandates can reduce the growth of the virus by up to 2% per day, preventing up to as many as 450,000 cases, along with physical distancing. Under the Vice President’s control, we have clear data that tells the truth- Black, Latinx, and Native peoples are being hospitalized at 5 times the rate of White Americans. When it comes to death rates, Latinx, Native peoples, and African-Americans are anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely than a White person to die from the virus. And in 36 states, White deaths are lower than their share in the population. Mike Pence knows all of this information and more. He has the ability to implement programs that could benefit the country and prevent countless deaths as we move towards the added strain of flu season. But he doesn’t. He chooses to pat himself on the back like he did in Indiana, because an unwanted community is being eliminated by an unforgiving virus.
Hours before the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence said he would no longer resist the plexiglass barriers set up to protect everyone involved. He wasn’t mentioning that his White House was directly responsible for 20 COVID cases, causing the largest spike DC has seen since June. When the Vice President stands on a national stage talking about his time running the Coronavirus Task Force, his public health record on a state level, or his ability to follow basic public health guidance, he reminds us that he is proud of his choices. Everything Mr. Pence has chosen to do has been at the expense of simple solutions to the multiple public health pandemics the US faces. And the expense of marginalized lives. Just as Mike Pence has chosen to endanger this country, we have the choice to vote him out.