Point of View: We can still work together to end COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I assumed we would come together to fight this battle as a team. We can still do that, save lives and save people from the devastating long-term illness that can come with COVID-19. We need to do that to save struggling businesses and restore jobs this pandemic is killing.

I say this as the husband of a dedicated hospital worker and for my wife’s co-workers, who are seeing more COVID-19 patients now than ever before. We need to get past this more quickly, and together.

State and local leaders have to start reading what’s true, conceding what’s true, saying what’s true and stop looking at this tragedy as a way to get votes by misleading people toward illness. Our highest leaders have to speak the truth and stop playing with irresponsible rhetoric about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. That rhetoric hardens opposition to the vaccines and safe practices every credible Alaska and national expert, regardless of party, says we need to end this nightmare.

Let’s start with facts from doctors on the frontline instead of falsehoods from Facebook.

A respected doctor on the Kenai Peninsula recently said: “We are in a crisis at the hospital. … That means when we have four patients and two machines, two people are not getting that care. It’s happening now.”

There’s a way forward to end this crisis. We need to get the truth to people who are skeptical about safe vaccinations and mask wearing in crowded places so we can stop the endless infection of more people.

We need to work with leaders and experts from local communities, to calmly get people in those communities the truth instead of riling up opposition to safe practices.

This week Gov. Mike Dunleavy did the opposite, writing an Op-Ed blaming others for this state’s mounting illness and death toll. He painted a rosy picture of where Alaska is. Here are facts he left out in praising the job he’s done.

He failed to mention Alaska now has the worst COVID-19 infection rates in the country. He left out that it’s now higher than in any nation on the planet.

People are dying at alarming rates, not the low rates he bragged about. As of Friday (Oct. 1), Alaska had the highest death rate in the nation.

We need to tell the truth in order to get more people to take this more seriously. And we need to calmly let people know how they can protect themselves and their neighbors.

The truth is on the state’s health sites, where experts say “the best way to do that is to get immunized against COVID-19. It’s also very important right now for Alaskans to wear a mask around others” in close spaces.

But that advice gets lost in the loudness of ugly rhetoric, like the use of false Nazi and Holocaust comparisons. Those comparisons just anger people we want to reach, keeping them from listening to expert advice about what really matters —their health and the health of others.

At a recent press conference, the Governor emotionally exaggerated that “strongly urging” people to voluntarily get a vaccine would make us like Nazi Germany “in 1939.” He insulted health workers, saying he didn’t want to “force a needle” into people’s arms — something no health care worker in Alaska does. That alarmist rhetoric came in response to a simple question about whether he would more strongly “urge” safe vaccination. His answer should have been a simple “yes, I’ll do that.”

I agree with letting communities and school boards adopt rules that fit their level of community danger. We don’t need statewide mandates with calm, responsible leadership.

We need a governor who does more than just send out a periodic video from the comfort of his office, with mixed messages about whether to get a vaccine. It doesn’t help that the governor has refused to be a role model. He’s undermined his experts by attending crowded indoor political events without a mask, and getting COVID-19 himself after one of those events.

The governor should be clear that we can’t get out of this pandemic unless more people get vaccinated and mask up in crowded places. He should have spent much of the past year travelling the state, safely, with experts and trusted local leaders to stress these things. He can still do that.

We are all weary of this pandemic. Politicians can play for votes and extend it. I’d act to end it.

Les Gara is a candidate for Governor. He worked as an Assistant Attorney General on the civil prosecution of Exxon following the Valdez Oil Spill, and served as a legislator from 2003-2018.