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Politics and bad math coalesce to numb our sense of pandemic’s toll

By Tom Baxter

COVID-19, it was said many times during this election year, would go away on Nov. 4. There was that level of cynicism that all the alarm over the pandemic was merely politics, and would magically disappear after the election.

This hasn’t proven to be the case. In Georgia, more than 500 deaths from the virus have been confirmed since Election Day. Nationally, 107,928 new cases were reported on Nov. 4. By Monday, this had climbed to 141,034 cases, and it’s expected the daily count will rise even higher after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Compared to the states in the Midwest and West where the pandemic is currently at its peak, Georgia looks in relatively good shape, with less than a fifth of the daily new cases being reported in North Dakota.

At the county level, however, you get a vivid sense of the pandemic’s whack-a-mole nature and how hard it is to contain it. In Dougherty County, which last spring had one of the highest infection rates in the world, the two-week average of new cases per 100,000 residents has drifted down to 78. In the big four Metro Atlanta counties, the average is just under 300 new cases per 100,000, and in Hall County it’s 358.

But in Whitfield County, the two-week average is a staggering 1,049 new cases per 100,000, and in neighboring Murray County it’s 969 new cases per 100,000. The new congresswoman for Whitfield and Murray is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who tweeted last week that she had “proudly told my freshman class that masks are oppressive,” although she was later photographed wearing one herself.

We should be alarmed by these numbers, so late in the pandemic, but we aren’t. The crowds at the nation’s airports in this Thanksgiving week attest to that. There’s a new term, “pandemic fatigue,” which is used to explain this, but “denial,” or even “acceptance” seem like better words than “fatigue.” In some grim way, we’ve gotten used to it. It’s in the news all the time, but only when someone like Sen. Kelly Loeffler tests positive do many of us take notice, and then only briefly.

This country suffers from an epidemic of innumeracy — the math equivalent of illiteracy — which is as crippling as the virus. Those misleading charts which purported to show that COVID-19 was no more deadly than the flu have largely disappeared from social media, now that the scope of the disaster is incontrovertible. But politics and bad math have coalesced into a refusal to accept facts that even the worst outcomes can’t shake.

When the history of this pandemic is written, it’s likely to include the late-night musings of a South Dakota nurse named Jodi Doering. “The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real,” she wrote of her COVID-19 patients on Twitter last week.

“The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have COViD because it’s not real. Yes. This really happens. And I can’t stop thinking about it. These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It’s like a f**king horror movie that never ends.”

COVID-19 was supposed to go away when the weather got warmer in the spring, and then it was supposed to be over after Election Day. Now, after a string of dramatic breakthroughs on the research front, it’s supposed to go away when the vaccine gets here.

It won’t. There should be tremendous improvements, but even with the most effective mass immunization program the lingering effects of the disease will be felt for years. Yes, years. Some — hopefully much smaller — number of Americans will get it next year and the year after, and we’re only beginning to grasp the long-term effects of the virus on the millions who’ve already had it. This is a much bigger problem for the incoming Biden administration than has been so far noticed. The speed with which he’ll own the virus will be much, much faster than then time it’s taking for the Trump White House to begin the transition process.

 

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Tom Baxter

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 Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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