By Tom Baxter

Speaking last year to the Gwinnett Chamber, before COVID-19 and all that came with it, Gov. Brian Kemp said he wasn’t sure the state’s economy would hold up as well as it did for former Gov. Nathan Deal, but he had his fingers crossed.

“There’s just things happening around the world that are a little frustrating. You can’t really control them,” Kemp said, in words that have proved to be painfully prophetic.

Georgia government — not just this governor but all his predecessors, and the departments they oversee — operates on an ethos of chin-up prosperity that may seem a little dissonant in a time when the economy of the world has been shaken. Even in times of belt tightening, prosperity is never farther than just around the corner. This was the spirit last week, when Kemp announced that Georgia has been chosen by a business magazine as “Top State for Doing Business” for the seventh straight year. Since midyear 2019, he said, the state has attracted $7.4 billion in investments in some 350 projects.

“It’s abundantly clear that Georgia remains the epicenter for job growth, economic development and investment because of strong conservative leadership,” Kemp said.

Whether you agree or not, it’s also abundantly clear that Georgia’s economy was hit hard in the early weeks of the pandemic, when unemployment claims quickly soared over a million, and has been slow to bounce back. WalletHub reports that Georgia ranks 50th in one measure of how quickly states are recovering, and 51st in another. At the beginning of this month the Georgia Department of Labor reported that it had paid out more than $7 billion in unemployment claims over the previous 24 weeks, more than the state paid in the last seven years combined.

It was the early impact of the lockdown on the state which spurred Kemp to press for the early reopening of the economy. It is a little more mystifying why late into the summer, Kemp was still pursuing a pointless law suit against Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ mask mandate.

One of the big lessons from this pandemic has been that public health and the economy have become inextricably entwined. The stubborn persistence of new coronavirus cases through the summer has slowed the economic recovery, and the biggest threat to the recovery is the possibility of a post-Labor Day surge in COVID-19 cases.

Beyond that loom the long-term costs of coping with the virus, and the very real danger that the pandemic will still further widen the gap between that part of the state which is racing ahead and the part which is falling behind.

In his excellent “Trouble in God’s Country” blog,  Charlie Hayslett has discovered stark evidence of how the Great Recession contributed to the decline of rural Georgia. In 2007, the year before the recession, there were 12 counties in the state where there were more people dying than being born. Last year there were 78, more than half the counties in the state. These are mostly rural counties but they include such towns as Americus, Milledgeville and Rome.

What’s the birth-to-death map going to look like next year, when the impact of the pandemic is tallied? Kemp reported last week that over the past year there has been a 30 percent increase in jobs created outside the Atlanta Metro Area, following through on one of the biggest commitments he made in his campaign for governor.

There’s a lot more left to be done, obviously. Unfortunately, in late summer these already declining counties have been the setting for some of the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspots.

If a similar lens were focused on Metro Atlanta, it would reveal a similar cleavage, worsened by the impact of the virus on the most vulnerable. This is one of the most worrisome, and potentially lasting, results of the troubles we are going through.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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