Ron Johnson looks on the bright side of COVID-19

By: - March 19, 2020 8:27 am
U.S. Senator Ron Johnson meets with President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, December 7, 2018

U.S. Senator Ron Johnson meets with President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, December 7, 2018 Photo by U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) has made national news multiple times now by taking a contrarian view on the coronavirus pandemic. This week he spoke out against paid sick leave, suggesting it would only make people more likely to stay home from work, and voted against an aid package that passed Congress with Donald Trump’s support.

“Right now, all people are hearing about are the deaths,” Johnson told the New York Times last week. “I’m sure the deaths are horrific, but the flip side of this is the vast majority of people who get coronavirus do survive.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Washington bureau chief, Craig Gilbert, visited Johnson in his mostly empty Senate office to give him a chance to respond to criticism that he is downplaying the pandemic. 

Here’s what Johnson said: “I’m not denying what a nasty disease COVID-19 can be, and how it’s obviously devastating to somewhere between 1 and 3.4% of the population.”

“But that means 97 to 99% will get through this and develop immunities and will be able to move beyond this,” he continued. “But we don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about. We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu.” 

Johnson acknowledged that coronavirus has a far higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu, Gilbert writes. But, he told Gilbert: “getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4% of our population (and) I think probably far less.”

(Keep in mind that 1% of the U.S. population is about 3.3 million people, more than three times the total number of U.S. fatalities in all wars in our nation’s history. Losing 3.4% of the U.S. population would mean 11 million deaths.)

Is Johnson suggesting that public officials are overreacting by instituting social distancing and closing schools and other gathering places, Gilbert asked.

Johnson appeared to backpedal a bit: 

“I‘m saying, ‘follow the guidelines’ … I’m not being critical of the governors that are closing things down. … I understand it completely. I’m just saying I am hopeful we … can, in the end, put this all in perspective and we can get the economy back on track as soon as possible.”

So what exactly does Johnson mean?

“I’m not being critical of what people are doing,” he told Gilbert. “But we also need to really understand the costs of potentially going too far here. But nobody knows what too far is, which is what’s so difficult about the situation.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.