MOBILE, Ala. — Here in the American South, we are experiencing the summer that I feared. Cases of COVID-19 have surged, hospitals have filled, nurses and doctors are overwhelmed. Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas are now hot spots, painted in a politically fitting deep red on maps that track infection rates.
As a native of the South and a student of its habits of mind, I suspected my region was headed toward just this sort of calamity. We live with many “underlying conditions” that are ideally suited for the spread of deadly pathogens such as the new coronavirus.
Our most serious underlying condition is political stupidity. We are led by politicians who have joined the cult of President Donald J. Trump, who dispute experts (George Wallace once called them “pointy-headed” intellectuals), who embrace conspiracies, who mutilate the concept of the common good. While Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, belatedly issued a statewide mandate requiring masks in public earlier on July 15 — only after intensive care units in her state’s largest cities were filling to capacity — Georgia’s GOP governor, Brian Kemp, on the same day issued an order prohibiting cities and towns from requiring their residents to wear masks.
Kemp’s destructive mandate was in response to orders from leaders of several towns and cities, mostly Democrats, who showed crucial leadership.
The governor’s order prompted an outraged response from Savannah Mayor Van R. Johnson, a Democrat: “It is officially official. Gov. Kemp does not give a damn about us. Every man and woman for himself/herself. Ignore the science and survive the best you can.”
Florida’s GOP governor, Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, has invited Trump to bring to his state the Republican National Convention, which, even as a downsized event, is the sort of gathering that epidemiologists warn against. He has brandished the Trumpist talking point that any surge in cases of COVID-19 is the result of increased testing. He has also sought to blame the poorest among essential workers — laborers who harvest crops — for Florida’s coronavirus explosion.
“Some of these guys go to work in a school bus, and they are all just packed there like sardines, going across Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and there’s all these opportunities to have transmission,” he said last month. With that, DeSantis pulled off a neat trick from the racist Trump handbook, managing to blame immigrants while ignoring the plague-spreading habits of the more-affluent Floridians who have packed bars and beaches.
Even if our political leaders were not drowning in a vat of Trump Kool-Aid, the South would still have made a convenient home for a highly infectious disease. It remains the poorest region: Eight of the 10 poorest states are in the South, according to data from the U.S. Census. That means many residents don’t have access to adequate health care. Impoverished people also tend to be less healthy, with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart and kidney disease than more-affluent populations.
Southern states had a chance to improve health care for their residents. The Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid, with the federal government picking up most of the cost. But reactionary political leaders across much of the South refused to do so. As a result, access to health care has only gotten worse: Several hospitals in rural areas have been forced to close because of financial woes that a Medicaid expansion would have mitigated.
Even the practices and traditions that usually bring us comfort have only brought more trouble. We Southerners are renowned for our hospitality, embracing feasts with family and friends and throwing festive gatherings for any reason or no reason. Epidemiologists now call such events “super-spreaders.”
They say the same thing about the church gatherings on which we Southerners rely. Faithful church-goers in this part of the world tend to listen to their preachers as if they are the only linguists who can translate God’s secret language, and too many preachers have abused that trust. Their egos (and coffers) need congregants in pews, shouting amens and singing loudly — and spraying the air with coronavirus. Trump and his allies, of course, have insisted that any move to shut down church services is a violation of our most fundamental right.
How about the right to stay alive? That right — on which the pursuit of happiness depends — is getting short shrift in our Southern summer.