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With summer, the realization the pandemic will be with us for a while

By Tom Baxter

The big news in the week before the Fourth of July is, depressingly, the same as the big news the week before St. Patrick’s Day. Some Americans have decided it’s time to move on from the coronavirus, but the coronavirus has not moved on from us.

Georgia reported its highest number of new cases so far in the pandemic Sunday, part of a dramatic spike in cases across the South and West. Probably through a combination of improved treatments and a younger population becoming exposed to the virus in the spring and summer, the death rate seems to be moderating. But the virus has taken, and continues to take, a frightening toll. In late March, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington lowered its estimate for how many Georgians would die from the virus in 2020 from 3,200 to 2,777.  On Monday, just midway through the year, the actual number of Georgians who have died is 2,778.

We still speak of waves, but after months of this, in our stay-home bubbles and distance-revised workplaces, the experience of living through a pandemic has begun to feel more like an automobile trip across the Midwest. The end point slips farther and farther away into the horizon, and the roadside features lose their distinction. That’s what it really feels like for a lot of people, irrespective of the daily political chatter.

The daily reporting on the outbreak is generally a mixture of numbers and human interest, with little sense of where the story’s going. There was a notable development last week, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reinforced some of the restrictions he’d lifted, in the face of soaring demands on his state’s hospital system.

Abbott also did something which has gone out of style in American politics. He admitted he’d been wrong about something.

“If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” Abbott said in a radio interview.

This change in policy and tone from the governor of the most important red state seems to have been the beginning of a larger shift, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing similar retrenchments and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp departing on a post-legislative session tour of the state to encourage mask wearing. Kemp still doesn’t want to make mask-wearing mandatory, but he and other red state governors who pushed to open up early have paid a political price for their lack of caution. Whatever they do about the virus, they’ve learned to respect its deadly potential enough not to take it casually.

While the pandemic response becomes more sophisticated at the state level, at the national level it is still being played out as a battle between a Democratic challenger who stays in his basement and a Republican incumbent who longs for tightly packed and unmasked crowds. If there is any nuance to this race, it hasn’t emerged yet.

Most coverage of the pandemic and the economic crisis it caused has framed it as a conflict between business and health: Between the need to open the economy up again and get Americans back to work, versus the need to stay vigilant against the spread of the virus. But recent research hasn’t turned up any difference between the states that ordered lockdowns and the states that didn’t. The economy began to tank for all of them at the same time, suggesting that it wasn’t government orders that were the problem, but the public’s wholly voluntary tendency to stay home and avoid getting sick.

That might make it easier for governors to reimpose some restrictions, but the larger and more important work of finding smarter responses to a persistent and deadly disease still loom ahead. The way their constituents face up to much longer interruption of their normal lives is another key question, as yet unanswered.

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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