Our Governments Need to Stop Treating Us Like Adults and Make Us Stay Home

Americans aren't mature enough to be trusted to make good decisions

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There’s a scene from Men in Black (1997) I think about a lot. Will Smith is contemplating joining MIB and is sitting on a park bench with Tommy Lee Jones. Smith is wondering why there’s such a big effort to keep the news of aliens living among us in society under wraps.

“Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it,” Smith says.

“A person is smart,” Jones says back. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated most of 2020. The early days of the pandemic were scary, but also full of wonder. It was amazing to marvel at the amount of compassion our government was capable of when they shut everything down, told us to stay home, sent us $1200 in free money, and extended unemployment assistance by $600 a week. Netflix released a super-addictive documentary series for us to consume, HBO made The Sopranos and The Wire free, and the money printer went brrrrr.

But the pandemic kept going, even after we’d all watched Tiger King and the aftershow, watched every Sopranos and Wire episode (they didn’t need to do Omar like that) spent our $1200, and the unemployment extension lapsed after Mitch McConnell refused to take up a bill from the House that would have extended it to 2021. Crowds of gun-toting yeehawdists surrounding state capitols this summer — and even plotting a terrorist attack to kidnap and behead a governor — made governors hesitant to call for another shutdown even as cases continued to climb.

Now, with Thanksgiving approaching and families preparing to host super-spreader events in which people gather in close quarters indoors and blast particles all over each other and breathe the same air, the CDC is predicting America will reach nearly 300,000 coronavirus-related deaths by December 12. Like Twitter user @BadFengShui recently wrote, America’s response to Covid seems to be right in line with our response to school shootings.

Some governors — mostly in blue states — are doing their best to implement stay-at-home orders, though enforcement of those orders is up to law enforcement agencies. County sheriffs in upstate New York are already signaling to families that they can have as many people over for indoor Thanksgiving celebrations without interference, directly undermining Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to contain the virus by limiting indoor gatherings to eight people or less.

Red-state governors are much more lax about coronavirus restrictions. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) has already said she won’t enforce a mask mandate if President-elect Joe Biden puts one in place, with a spokesperson saying Gov. Noem “has provided her citizens with the full scope of the science and trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved-ones.”

But South Dakota is a great example of why you can’t trust people to be responsible adults and make good decisions. Both North and South Dakota have the highest coronavirus positivity rates in the United States, with 177 positive cases out of 100,000 people and 137 cases out of 100,000 people, respectively. To put that number in perspective, the United States has a national average of 35 cases per 100,000 people.

The high positivity rates in the Dakotas are even more remarkable considering all the natural protections North and South Dakota residents already enjoy. They rank #47 and #46 in population density, respectively, out of all 50 states. States that border the Dakotas, like Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming, also have relatively low population density. North Dakota’s northern border is shared by the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, each of which have population densities of just roughly six people per square mile. By all accounts, containing Covid in rural, low-density states should be an easy task.

By contrast, Vietnam has a population of roughly 112 people per square mile, making it the 46th most densely populated country in the world (the US ranks #174 in population density). Yet Vietnam has had just 1,304 positive cases since the outbreak began, and only 35 Vietnamese citizens have died from coronavirus. Vietnam’s success in containing the spread of Covid can be chalked up to its overreaction to the virus. It implemented strict containment measures like a mask mandate, widespread mass testing, thorough contract tracing, closing schools, shutting down public establishments, and making new visitors quarantine for at least 14 days.

“[Vietnam] very, very quickly acted in ways which seemed to be quite extreme at the time but were subsequently shown to be rather sensible,” Oxford University professor Guy Thwaites told the BBC. “The government and population are very, very used to dealing with infectious diseases and are respectful of them, probably far more so than wealthier countries. They know how to respond to these things.”

(The registration desk at a rapid testing site in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Truyền Hình Pháp Luật/Wikimedia Commons)

At the bare minimum, we need another 90-day lockdown, a nationwide mask mandate, and a stimulus bill big enough to help workers stay home while keeping their bills paid and their children fed, and for small businesses to avoid having to close permanently. Though it doesn’t help that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) just adjourned the Senate until November 30 without taking up coronavirus relief, especially considering 12 million people will lose their last existing safety net next month if he doesn’t act.

If there are people reading this who say they’re responsible adults and don’t need governors to tell them who they can and can’t have over for the holidays thank you very much, I’d like you to take a moment and read this Twitter thread by Emilia Gonzales Avalos, whose father is a Covid-positive undocumented food system worker. Emilia just took her father to her local hospital, and the doctors encouraged her to have “the talk” with her father before he went into the intensive care unit.

“I don’t wish this to my worst enemy,” she wrote. “I’m livid. And heartbroken. And scared shitless.”

Wear a mask. Stay distant this holiday season. Before you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, give thanks to workers like Emilia’s father who helped harvest and process the food on your plate. And click the last link in the thread to donate to her GoFundMe if you’re able.