At a press conference Thursday morning, Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp made the astonishing claim that until the “last 24 hours,” he and his team were unaware that asymptomatic people can carry and spread the coronavirus. This, despite a White House press room warning from the country’s top medical expert issued a full two months ago and consistent mainstream news reports repeating this fact day after day after day. One would imagine that the governor has other resources at his disposal beyond CNN, but even that should have been enough.
Kemp—a man who used his power as secretary of state to delay nearly 40,000 Black voters from participating in the 2018 gubernatorial election—is either truly, dangerously ignorant, or he is lying. As the virus tore through Georgia’s rural, urban, and incarcerated communities over the past week, Kemp refused to shut down the state, saying as recently as three days ago that such action was never “on the radar.” Similarly, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another dyed-in-the-wool Republican, recently said that he has not yet issued a stay-at-home order because the federal government hasn’t officially recommended it to him. And then there’s Mississippi’s Republican Governor Tate Reeves, who in mid-March issued an executive order to override local ordinances and block access to abortion while keeping gun shops open.
The response to this level of malice and incompetence has been easy and necessary outrage. Of the 17 states without stay-at-home orders in place, seven are in the South (eight if you count Oklahoma). And as is usually the case, the justified outrage has been accompanied in certain corners by sneering condescension about the region’s population. On the same day as Kemp’s comment, The New York Times published a report based on “anonymous cellphone data from 15 million people,” a chilling phrase I will set aside for the moment. The Times article described how, from block parties in Jacksonville to bustling hardware stores in South Carolina and out-of-towners flocking to the Gulf Coast in Alabama, local state officials were struggling to curb the spread of the virus as people continued to go about their normal lives. This information, in tandem with a graphic showing that people in the South are still traveling more than two miles per day, was quickly shared on social media by Times staffers and other high-up members of the media. The subtext in since-deleted posts by those like Times star pupil Mike Barbaro—who posted an image of one of the graphs with the caption “In a word … The South”—was crystal clear: Get a load of these dumb motherfuckers.
This broad-brush garbage is as infuriating as it is predictable. Beyond the obvious snobbery at play, it’s also myopic as hell. North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has been among the swiftest actors to the pandemic, not just in the South but in the entire nation—shutting down nonessential businesses, limiting access to state parks, closing schools for an extended period, and issuing a stay-at-home order for all residents. Compare that to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat with a state budget director who served as a financial adviser to Republican legislators for two decades, who just announced a budget deal that included billions in cuts to Medicaid on Wednesday. Cuomo also waited until the last day of March to shut down playgrounds, while New York City’s parks, now more crowded in the evenings than they typically are on a summer afternoon sans pandemic, remain open. (And none of this has stopped Cuomo from shaming people for filling the public spaces he refused to close.) But thanks to a combination of his daily televised press conferences, his position as the governor in the nation’s first hotspot state, and the American political media’s long-standing devotion to family dynasties, it’s Cuomo—not Cooper or Washington state Governor Jay Inslee—who has been tentatively crowned the Great Leader We Need by the beltway press corps.
This kind of wholesale dismissal of “The South” also erases the political conditions that have hijacked these states at the expense of most residents. When this is reflected upon in the decades to come, the region’s final death count will be tethered to the legacy of post-recession Southern Republican legislatures sweeping in during the Obama years and wholly reconfiguring the region’s politics to benefit the wealthy and attack the poor. For the past decade-plus, taxes for the one percent were slashed, budgets were gutted, and voter rolls were pruned of Black voters. The system of federalism was working exactly as these Republicans intended, all the way up until an emergency of unprecedented proportions came knocking and they realized that there would be a price to pay for stonewalling federal Medicaid expansion. But now, rather than use the moment to course correct and save lives, craven politicians—like Reeves with his abortion ban, or DeSantis and his decision to make it impossible for unemployed people to access benefits—are using their bully pulpit and state power to double down on their political prerogatives. Where density was the unavoidable multiplier in places like New York City, austerity politics, racist policies like redlining, and the chronic underfunding of social services will be the Achilles’ heel for Southern communities.
The same day as the Times article, The Atlantic’s Van Newkirk II published a thoughtful piece looking at the pandemic’s forthcoming effects on the region and its people. It’s a sobering read. The numbers of people under 70 dying from the virus are far higher in Southern states than elsewhere in the country and the nation, due in large part to the fact that young people, especially in the Deep South, are at a far higher risk of developing the lung and heart conditions that expedite and multiply the lethality of the virus. Last week, in an article for Facing South, Olivia Paschal laid bare the disaster this pandemic is going to turn into very soon for the South’s rural communities. The health care infrastructure in these towns will be overwhelmed, underresourced, and understaffed.
Even beyond the lack of ventilators and local medical centers, many of these towns and communities are not built to encourage social distancing. Food deserts dot the South, as they do throughout the rest of the nation’s rural communities, especially those in Indian Country. The Times’ mined cellular data shows this reality—that Southerners are driving farther on a daily basis—devoid of that essential context. My parents’ house in North Carolina is five miles away from the nearest grocery store, and that’s likely relatively close compared to some of their neighbors. There are two Dollar Generals between their house and that Food Lion. This is what tens of millions of Southerners face: A crisis that demands they buy in bulk and stay at home lest they risk their lives, and a surrounding environment that is built for the opposite.
The dire situation that first exploded in New York City and Washington State is coming for the South. New Orleans is well on its way to becoming a new epicenter of the nation. The stories of refrigerated mobile morgues being wheeled up to Manhattan hospitals are already appearing in North Carolina. And still, convincing those who have never called the region home to extend the slightest bit of empathy for the people staring down the barrel still requires an inordinate amount of work.
To a certain extent, I get it: Punching down and crude generalizations are always easier than parsing the political history that elevated Republican death cultism at the expense of millions of regular people. But during this time of incredible stress—as many Southerners are left with a void in competent leadership and the immediate threat of a deadly and highly contagious virus—it’s crucial that the same concern reserved for New Yorkers is extended throughout the country. The pandemic is complex, but the basic rules of conduct are simple enough: Don’t be a dick.