Now that a Brazilian Congressional panel has voted to recommend that President Jair Bolsonaro—whom Donald Trump has endorsed for re-election—should be charged with incitement to crime, violation of social rights, and crimes against humanity for his abysmal and lethal pandemic response, it is perhaps time that we considered similar charges against U.S. political leaders for their nonfeasance and negligent policies during the pandemic.
Too many elected officials here, most of them following the lead of former President Trump, have been playing fast and loose with the lives and well-being of their constituents. America is the only country with a higher death toll than Brazil—we’ve already exceeded 730,000 deaths, and are on track to lose another 30,000 lives by the end of November.
And many of these deaths were avoidable. A study by my center at Columbia University last year found that of the 217,000 deaths from COVID-19 at that point, fully 200,000 could have been avoided if we had simply emulated policies that countries like South Korea, Australia and Japan had been implementing. If only Trump had been honest with Americans regarding the dangers we faced. If only he wasn’t a deliberate purveyor of misinformation and anti-science nonsense. And if only he hadn’t promoted unproven or dangerous treatments with hydroxychloroquine or bleach injections for those who had become infected by the lethal SARS-CoV-2 virus…
Although Trump was voted out of office in 2020, state and local officials across the nation have picked up where he left off, embracing his legacy of misguided and negligent policies. What reading of political tea leaves allows a person to pursue or sustain higher office by shamelessly rejecting science-based strategies that could have—and still could—help control the pandemic and save lives?
One of the perspectives that has been exploited by politicians opposing mandates is reinforcing the notion that requiring any public health measures is an affront to personal liberty. In fact, among vaccine resistant Americans, estimated by the Kaiser Family Foundation to be about 15-20 percent of the adult population, there are many who claim that their civil liberties are violated by mandating public health measures like vaccines or wearing masks. Politicians who exploit these sentiments not only score cheap political points among these voters, but, more importantly, they undermine public support for essential and effective public health measures like mask-wearing and vaccination campaigns.
Whatever buttons politicians might choose to press, government officials in positions of authority who promote false information about the pandemic or knowingly support policies that counter evidence-based, lifesaving pandemic control strategies must bear responsibility for excessive, avoidable COVID-19 deaths.
So what can we do to hold governors and other policy makers who deny evidence-based pandemic control measures and continuously sabotage state and local efforts to control COVID-19 to account?
Elected officials are thought to be somewhat protected from civil suits or even certain categories of criminal charges through a principle known as sovereign immunity.
But is this immutable? How many unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 attributable to willful actions or deliberate inaction on the part of a governor are acceptable before prosecutors think it’s time to bring the likes of Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis or Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott up on appropriate criminal charges or civil litigation?
Citizens should be able to bypass sovereign immunity and sue state officials for willful and negligent disregard of local jurisdictions’ right to protect the health and safety of school children in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis banned the use of masks and mandatory vaccinations, actions which likely led to pediatric wards overflowing with COVID-positive children. Official CDC studies have even shown that schools without mask requirements see rates of child COVID-19 cases that are 50 percent higher than those requiring masks. Other pathways to liability for elected officials also exist through violations of specific state constitutions or via the Federal Tort Claims Act, among others.
Winning an election can’t be a get-out-of-jail-free card for negligence, dereliction of duty, and overt acts that endanger lives and undermine the well-being of their constituents. What’s clear is that self-serving political leaders who knowingly put the lives of their constituents at risk are not qualified to lead in a time of a lethal public health crisis.
Trump has already been removed by the voters, but for those who are still in positions of executive power we can’t wait to vote them out at the ballot box when their negligence and misfeasance is costing lives. We need lawyers, critical media, and concerned citizens to lift the veil of “sovereign immunity” which has for too long protected those who have abused their power and exacerbated the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without near-term legal accountability, civil and criminal, we could unnecessarily lose thousands more American lives by the time the next election cycle rolls around.