By Margaret Renkl [September 6, 2021]
NASHVILLE — For those of you keeping score at home, here is where things stand in the 2021 National Calamities Sweeps, Southern Division:
In the ever-expanding Climate-Augmented Natural Disasters event, results cannot yet be tallied. Tennessee and North Carolina are both digging out from catastrophic flooding, while parts of Louisiana were flattened by Hurricane Ida, and most of New Orleans remains without electricity. Ida’s remnants also brought even more rain to areas of the South and beyond that were already dangerously waterlogged.
In the Utter Failure to Understand What “Pro-Life” Really Means tournament, normally a very close battle in the red states, Texas is currently uncontested: Its leaders just made it easier to carry a gun and harder to end an unwanted pregnancy in the same week.
Finally, in the Colossally Botched Medical Emergency competition, it’s neck and neck across the region as Republican governors double down on efforts to block mask and vaccine mandates, along with every other pandemic-mitigation attempt made by people who are not allergic to science.
Every single one of these disasters is, at its heart, a public health emergency. And in every case our leaders have responded with disinterest and disinformation at best. In many cases they have worsened the emergency in every way imaginable.
Instead of taking concrete measures to limit climate change, they send up prayers for rescue workers. Instead of making it possible for poor women to get quality medical care, they limit reproductive options for everyone — though the poorest, of course, will suffer most. Instead of espousing common-sense gun laws that keep citizens safe, they ally themselves with the gun lobby. (Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, actually signed this state’s new permitless-carry bill in a ceremonial event at a gun factory.) Instead of trying to keep people safe during this pandemic, our leaders offer ludicrous platitudes on the subject of freedom.
Freedom from what? is the real question. Freedom from death is surely at the top of anybody’s priority list. (Please disregard Tate Reeves, governor of Mississippi, who believes Southern Christians aren’t all that worried about death.)
Nevertheless, Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, is more interested in investigating the Covid-treatment benefits of a horse dewormer — despite warnings about its dangers from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association — than in getting his constituents vaccinated.
For a few days last week, Tennessee had the highest Covid case rate — including the highest case rate for children — in the country. By Friday, South Carolina had taken the lead in overall cases, and Tennessee had dropped to second place, giving them the highest case rates per capita in the world, according to Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
Hospitalizations for both adults and children in Tennessee have surpassed their previous pandemic record. School systems across the state keep shutting down because of outbreaks, using the few inclement-weather days already built into the school calendar because Mr. Lee has not authorized days off for Covid outbreaks. Nor has he allowed school systems to pivot to online learning.
And yet, despite these indisputable indicators of failed public policy, Mr. Lee has no intention of reversing course. Most Southern Republicans don’t, either, and that’s why Southerners will continue to die unnecessary deaths — if not from Covid, then from natural disasters, or self-administered abortions, or gun violence, or any number of other preventable tragedies.
Whether you believe in climate change or not, living without access to electricity and safe drinking water is a public health emergency. Whether you need an abortion or not, living where it is difficult or impossible to obtain one is a public health emergency because clinics that provide abortions also provide crucial preventive care like mammograms and cervical cancer screening — services that will no longer be offered when those clinics close. Having more people carrying more guns into more public places is clearly a hair-on-fire public health emergency.
There are people down here working harder than you would believe to make life better for everyone, including the folks who keep voting charlatans into office. These heroes are working to get their communities vaccinated, to defend mask mandates in schools, to protect the environment, to increase access to health care, and to reform a hopelessly broken criminal justice system, just for starters. Every day I hear a new story about someone, or some organization, whose work gives me renewed hope, just when I am in danger of succumbing to despair.
But every step of the way they are fighting against their own elected officials to accomplish anything. And it is long past time to recognize that some matters are too important to be entrusted to state governments anymore.
If there is anything this pandemic has taught us, it’s that public health is not a local matter. When hospitals in the red-state countryside close, their patients arrive in blue-city hospitals, taking up beds and lifesaving equipment and putting health care workers at risk. When people in the red states aren’t vaccinated, the virus continues to evolve, creating variants that pose a health risk to people everywhere else.
We don’t trust red-state governments to set baseline environmental-protection standards. That’s a responsibility of the federal government because air and water do not observe state borders. In the same way and for the same reasons, we can no longer trust Republican governors and legislatures to protect public health.
It’s great that the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education is investigating Mr. Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates. It will be even better if federal legislation shoring up the social safety net is signed into law, expanding Medicaid in Tennessee and the other 11 states that so far have refused to accept this desperately needed health care funding. But we still need federal gun-safety legislation. We still need a federal law that protects a woman’s right to choose.
We need to take health and public safety out of the hands of Republicans because this is not a game, no matter how often the people running things down here may behave as though it is. There are no winners in the National Calamities tournament of 2021. Here in the South, especially, there are only losers.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”