Rock guitarist Ted Nugent called the Covid pandemic a “dirty lying scam” as recently as two weeks ago. So social media reacted with predictable and justified schadenfreude when he announced Monday on a Facebook live video that he had tested positive for Covid after a severe illness. “I thought I was dying. I literally could hardly crawl out of bed the last few days,” he said. “Maybe it’s not even Covid. I’m thinking it’s just Cat Scratch Fever. Karma has a sense of humor,” actor George Takei responded on Twitter, speaking for many.
Nugent has a long history of making racist and antisemitic statements and of generally being horrible. That hasn’t changed. In the video in which he says he has Covid he uses anti-Asian slurs and reiterates that he won’t get the Covid vaccine because “nobody knows what’s in it” (Fact check: health officials and experts do in fact know what’s in the Covid vaccines, which is why they have been approved). Even with these major caveats, though, Nugent’s decision to acknowledge that he was sick with Covid is one of the few decent things he’s done in the last several decades.
Covid denialism has become deeply embedded on the right, where conspiratorial thinking and vaunting individualism have metastasized into a visceral, dangerous rejection of public health measures. Early in the pandemic, 60 percent of Democrats said the virus was a major threat to health, while only about a third of Republicans did. Republicans have also been resistant to wearing masks, with only 53 percent saying they wore masks in stores all or most of the time compared to 76 percent of Democrats. And now, of course, Republicans are much more likely to refuse vaccines. In March polls, more than 40 percent of Republican men said they would not get the vaccine.
Nugent obliquely acknowledges that his recent video is off-message for his demographic and audience. “Everyone told me that I shouldn’t announce this,” he says, before launching into a discussion of his illness and diagnosis.
Nugent doesn’t say why he was urged not to discuss his Covid, but it’s easy to guess. He has claimed that Covid isn’t dangerous in the past, so now he looks (even more) ridiculous. And beyond that, his friends, loved ones, and audience are all committed to the idea that Covid is a hoax perpetrated by Democrats. By acknowledging his own illness, Nugent is telling his viewers that not only is he wrong, but that they are. If the illness is truly as serious as he says it is, some of those white male Republican Nugent fans might even want to take precautions, like wearing a mask or getting a vaccine.
Nugent is a fool and a reactionary dingbat. No one wants to give him even qualified, marginal credit for anything, and for good reason. But unfortunately, the hard core of vaccine resistors at the moment tend to be fools and reactionary dingbats. To convince them that the virus is a threat to even fools and reactionary dingbats, we need people like Nugent to be honest about their experience with the disease, and to say that yes, it made them very, very sick. President Donald Trump, predictably, set the absolute worst possible example after he got Covid, downplaying his symptoms and insisting that he hadn’t been that sick, despite having been transferred to hospital. It was only after he left office that the full extent of his very serious illness became public.
Nugent clearly tried his best to minimize any possible benefit to public health by spreading racist slurs and doubling down on anti-vaxx lies at the same time that he spoke about his experience with Covid. He is clearly determined to do as little good as possible, and to continue to pander to an audience eager for hate, fear, and lies.
But even so, it’s good that he came forward, and not just so Twitter could mock him. Hopefully, when other right-wing figures become sick — and sadly, they will if they refuse to be vaccinated and take precautions — they will also talk publicly about how dangerous Covid is. They will probably at best convince a handful of their followers to reconsider their intransigent opposition to masks, to vaccines, and to ameliorating the pandemic. But in a public health crisis, every person who acts like slightly less of a reactionary dingbat benefits us all.