The novel coronavirus is a bundle of proteins. It doesn’t care about faith, freedom, jobs or right-wing conspiracy theories, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of Americans from defying all medical advice to protest against lockdown measures meant to keep them safe — often while standing unmasked and shoulder to shoulder.
The virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have had a devastating human and economic impact on many nations around the world, including hard-hit Italy and Spain. However, no country has seen more deaths to date than the United States — and no country’s citizens have fought harder against the lockdowns than those in the U.S.
Dozens of protests broke out across the country over the last week, amid a swirl of right-wing conspiracy theories, economic frustration, anti-science rhetoric and encouragement from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Many of the protests have blended calls for defying government tyranny with calls for Trump’s re-election.
Their protests have mixed legitimate calls for economic help with bogus conspiracy theories about the virus, often while ignoring public health advice measures meant to prevent its spread.
“These people love our country,” Trump said on Sunday, when asked about the people violating his own government’s recommendations. “They want to get back to work.”
Trump also appeared to encourage the protesters on Friday, when he urged Americans to “LIBERATE” three states run by Democratic governors. The comments came a few days after pro-Trump groups rallied outside state legislatures in Ohio and Michigan to demand a loosening of the doctor-recommended lockdowns.
Hundreds responded to Trump’s words by showing up at many state capitol buildings over the weekend, where they donned U.S.A.-themed outfits and waved pro-Trump and pro-freedom signs. Some of them protested from the safety of their vehicles, but others got out and jammed together in person.
One of the largest gatherings occurred in Austin, Texas, where Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones helped fire up the crowd on Saturday.
Protesters held signs decrying vaccines, quoting apocalyptic verses from the Bible and demanding the ousting of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert and an adviser to Trump on the White House’s coronavirus response team.
“Fire Fauci!” the crowd chanted at one point in Austin on Saturday, in a chant led by Alex Jones. “Fire Fauci!”
Many in the crowd wore face masks as per Dr. Fauci’s recommendations. Others did not. However, calls to fire Fauci have been circulating among right-wing circles for weeks, and they picked up fuel when Trump retweeted a message with the hashtag “FireFauci” on April 12.
It’s unclear what grievances they have against Fauci, aside from discomfort with his science-based recommendations to protect them from the virus.
Signs at these rallies conveyed rage and a healthy dose of unintentional irony, as protesters seemed not to recognize the connection between leaving their homes and getting the virus.
“Give me liberty or give me death,” one frequent slogan read. The signs have been circulating all weekend on social media, where critics pointed out that liberty might actually lead to death during this pandemic.
Another protester held a similar sign outside the capitol in Olympia, Wash.
“Give me liberty or give me COVID-19,” it said.
The sign-maker is more at risk of getting COVID-19 from his fellow protesters than he would be at home, according to the current medical guidance.
Many put a new twist on a slogan often used to advocate for access to abortions. “My body, my choice,” protesters wrote on their signs over the weekend, in reference to recommendations that they wear face masks to protect others.
The U.S. protests stood in stark contrast to another anti-government demonstration in Israel over the weekend, where activists donned blackface masks and stood six feet apart to convey their message.
No such coordination has been seen in the U.S. to date.
A majority of the U.S. protests seem both to oppose government power while supporting Trump, who is the head of the U.S. government.
Trump has been pushing to re-open the U.S. economy as quickly as possible despite failing to halt the spread of the virus. He has frequently tied his re-election chances in November to the state of the economy, and that economy continues to shrivel under current lockdown measures.
Several states, including Ohio, Texas and Florida, have said they aim to reopen parts of their economies by May 1 or sooner. Florida even went ahead and opened some of its beaches last Friday, despite widespread condemnations on social media.
On Sunday, Trump suggested that states with tighter restrictions might be overdoing it.
“Some governors have gone too far,” he said at the briefing.
He also dismissed video and photo evidence showing the protesters standing close together, unmasked, in the middle of the worst pandemic of the century.
“It was a very orderly group of people,” he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press