Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has faced sharp criticism this week for perpetuating a conspiracy theory accusing medical professionals of inflating COVID-19 cases and deaths, but this is not the first time Ernst has peddled far-right falsehoods in an election year.
Six years ago, during the summer of Ernst’s first run for U.S. Senate, Yahoo News published footage of Ernst at a Montgomery County forum where she spoke in detail about Agenda 21, “a community planning provision in a decades-old United Nations treaty that’s become an object of fear and conspiracy theories on the right, and especially in the commentaries and writing of Glenn Beck,” Yahoo News reported in August 2014.
Though Agenda 21 is a non-binding agreement adopted by the U.N. as a series of suggestions for how countries around the world could implement environmentally sustainable policies in agriculture, housing, economic development and other areas, conservatives seized on the ideas as a way for government to “take away our individual liberties, our freedoms as United States citizens,” Ernst said at the 2014 forum.
“The United Nations has imposed this upon us, and as a U.S. senator, I would say, ‘No more. No more Agenda 21,'” Ernst said. “Community planning — to the effect that it is implementing eminent domain and taking away property rights from individuals — I don’t agree with that. And especially in a place such as Iowa, where we rely heavily upon our agricultural community, our rural communities. We don’t want to see things like eminent domain come into play.”
She continued: “We don’t want to see a further push with Agenda 21, where the Agenda 21 and the government telling us that these are the urban centers that you will live in; these are the ways that you will travel to other urban centers. Agenda 21 encompasses so many different aspects of our lives that it’s taking away our individual liberties, our freedoms as United States citizens. So I would adamantly oppose Agenda 21. I don’t believe it’s responsible, not for United States citizens.”
In reporting on Ernst’s comments, Yahoo News said the conspiracy theory surrounding Agenda 21 was “so obscure that several outside GOP operatives approached for this story had never heard of it.”
Now in the midst of her first reelection campaign, Ernst on Monday in rural Waterloo repeated untruths first alleged by a Minnesota legislator, accusing hospitals of inflating COVID-19 cases because Medicare reimburses health care providers at a higher rate for caring for COVID-19 patients. While it is true that coronavirus legislation has made changes to reimbursement rates for COVID-19 patients on Medicare, as FactCheck.org has reported, “multiple experts told us that such theories of hospitals deliberately miscoding patients as COVID-19 are not supported by any evidence.”
As reported by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Ernst also said she was “so skeptical” of the coronavirus death toll and case counts in the United States, perpetuating a false claim made by President Trump, QAnon and far-right commentators that the U.S. death toll is far lower than the reported 185,000.
There is no evidence to suggest hospital administrators or medical professionals are exaggerating the number of COVID-19 patients they treat or how many have died due to complications from the respiratory disease. In fact, as The Washington Post reported in April, the death toll due to the coronavirus likely was undercounted in the early stages of the pandemic due to a lack of testing and people who died at home or in nursing homes without realizing they had contracted the virus.
By Elizabeth Meyer
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