I’m trying hard not to feel a sense of schadenfreude about the plight of Maine Rep. Chris A. Johansen, R-Monticello, an outspoken critic of masks and vaccination who reportedly contracted COVID about a week ago and, in his own words, was “really, really sick.”

Schadenfreude is one of those multi-syllabic, hard-to-translate German words that essentially means deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune.

I certainly wish Johansen a full and speedy recovery. But I also hope that he pays a stiff political price for his willful blindness and reckless behavior. It’s impossible for government to function successfully when those driving the bus are unable or unwilling to observe and avoid visible dangers on the road ahead.

Johansen has used his public podium to advocate against pandemic public health measures. Moreover, he and his wife, an officer on the Aroostook County GOP committee (who became symptomatic at about the same time her husband), refrained from getting the COVID vaccine and shared posts on Facebook downplaying the pandemic and mocking vaccination.

In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Johansen organized a demonstration outside the Blaine House in Augusta, attended by about 300 people, protesting Gov. Mills’ emergency restrictions on the operation of non-essential businesses. In May 2021, Johansen was one of seven lawmakers stripped of their committee assignments for entering the State House without masks in violation of the Legislature’s rule that they be worn by those in the building. A video, posted on Facebook on Jan. 5, showed the seven, without masks, being confronted by Capitol police.

Aside from jeopardizing his own health, who knows how many others Johansen exposed to the risk of the virus by coming into contact with them without having taken precautions. Politicians, after all, need to press a lot of flesh to do their job.

Nor is it possible to estimate the number of constituents and social network followers, who, following his example, may have been persuaded, or confirmed in their belief, that it was best to avoid being vaccinated.

And there’s one more thing to consider, something that any good Republican can understand. Failure of public officials to get the vaccine carries a potential price tag for the taxpayers who subsidize their health insurance.

Legislators are eligible for group health insurance paid by the state. For second-term lawmakers like Johansen, that subsidy is 100 percent. I don’t know if Johansen elected this coverage. As a military veteran and retired police officer, he may instead have accessed other government-subsidized options. In any event, should he require hospitalization, his treatment costs will figure into the experience rating of those insured in his pool and will likely be reflected in higher premiums paid by government and ultimately by taxpayers.

COVID is a universal, non-political disease, but vaccine hesitancy is a predominantly Republican malady. According to a recent survey, 42 percent of Republicans are either opposed to or still unsure about getting a COVID vaccination, versus 10 percent of Democrats, while 29 percent of Republicans flatly say they won’t get vaccinated, compared to just 4 percent of Democrats. Most disturbing of all, 32 percent of Republicans subscribe to the crackpot theory that government is using the vaccine to install microchips in the recipients.

Part of this hesitancy is a legacy of Trump. As is clear from a raft of recently published tell-all books about the last year of his presidency, Trump was focused on only one agenda during the pandemic — getting re-elected. A sizzling economy had been his ace-in-the-hole. But the pandemic threatened to shut down the economy, so Trump tried to minimize its seriousness, pretending it would pass quickly, undercutting the advice of public health professionals and touting unproven miracle cures. Public health measures, like masks and social distancing, were visible reminders of the pandemic’s severity, so Trump chose to eschew them and encouraged his followers to do likewise.

This negative presidential public relations effort helped to undermine confidence in the vaccine by the time it became available for distribution to the public in December 2020 (ironically on an expedited schedule that was due, at least in part, to Trump’s one real pandemic achievement — incentivizing drug companies to embark on a blitzkrieg effort to develop safe and effective vaccines under Operation Warp Speed).

But vaccine hesitancy can’t be blamed entirely on Trump. The GOP has spent years whipping up paranoia against the government. Ronald Reagan’s famous quip, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” became a GOP mantra. The aim was a cynical one: to lower taxes and reduce regulation for the benefit of the rich by convincing a large segment of non-affluent Americans that the government could never be trusted to protect their welfare or prudently spend their tax money, and, worse, that it was filled with malign operators.

The success of this indoctrination campaign, spread by talk-radio, the internet and a host of shadowy organizations, has become increasingly evident. And its potency, like the virus itself, has morphed into ever more virulent forms, sprouting an extensive network of fringe groups who readily embrace the most outlandish anti-government conspiracy theories.

But when delusional thinking collides head-on with scientific reality, there can be only one winner, and that’s scientific reality.

Hopefully that’s a lesson Rep. Johansen just learned — the hard way. And if he hasn’t, his constituents should replace him with someone who has.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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