Right-wing ideology is lethal
As governors across the country fell into line in recent weeks, South Dakota’s top elected leader stood firm: There would be no statewide order to stay home.
Such edicts to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Kristi L. Noem said disparagingly, reflected a “herd mentality.” It was up to individuals — not government — to decide whether “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.”
And besides, the first-term Republican told reporters at a briefing this month, “South Dakota is not New York City.”
But now South Dakota is home to one of the largest single coronavirus clusters anywhere in the United States, with more than 300 workers at a giant pork-processing plant falling ill. With the case numbers continuing to spike, the company was forced to announce the indefinite closure of the facility Sunday, threatening the U.S. food supply.
“A shelter-in-place order is needed now. It is needed today,” said Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, whose city is at the center of South Dakota’s outbreak and who has had to improvise with voluntary recommendations in the absence of statewide action.
But the governor continued to resist. Instead, she used a media briefing Monday to announce trials of a drug that President Trump has repeatedly touted as a potential breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
“It’s an exciting day,” she boasted, repeatedly citing her conversations with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Can you believe it? Instead of issuing a stay at home order she touts Jared giving her an untested drug that will do absolutely nothing to stop the spread of the disease.
The “death cult” thing is not hyperbole. They are this close to Kool-Aid.
The piecemeal approach to combating the coronavirus in South Dakota offers a throwback to America’s not-so-distant past, the period around a month ago when governors were still leery of using their powers to shut down restaurants and bars or to order people, for the greater good, to stay at home.
It also may offer a glimpse of the country’s near-term future, as pressure builds — not least from the president — to reopen after a weeks-long shutdown. Trump has been eager to get the economy on its feet again by the beginning of May after record rises in unemployment claims and dramatic falls in the stock market.
Yet as South Dakota’s experience shows, no part of the country is immune to being ravaged by the virus. And rescinding orders that people stay at home — or declining to issue them, as in the case of South Dakota and four other states — offers plenty of peril.
Reopening the country by May is “not even remotely achievable,” said TenHaken, who, like Trump and Noem, is a Republican. “We’re in the early innings of this thing in Sioux Falls.”
Already, the experience has been harrowing: As of early April, the city had relatively few cases. But over the course of last week, the numbers surged as the virus ripped through the city’s Smithfield Foods production plant, a colossus that employs 3,700 people — many of them immigrants — and churns out 18 million servings of pork product per day.
On Monday alone, 57 more workers were confirmed to have positive diagnoses, bringing the total well above 300 — and making it one of the country’s largest clusters. Other major clusters include Cook County Jail in Chicago and the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.
The Smithfield cases amount to more than a third of the state’s overall total, which stood at 868 on Monday, including six deaths, in a state of nearly 900,000 people.
Over the weekend, Smithfield bowed to growing pressure and said it would shutter the facility indefinitely in a bid to contain the spread — though Smithfield leaders cautioned that the action could severely disrupt the nation’s food supplies. The factory, like other food production facilities, had earlier been deemed essential by the federal government.
The shutdown of the Sioux Falls plant, coupled with other closures, “is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Kenneth Sullivan, Smithfield president and chief executive, said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”
Before the closure, workers had complained that they were not given sufficient access to protective gear, such as masks. The company said Thursday that it had taken steps to reduce the spread, including “adding extra hand sanitizing stations, boosting personal protective equipment, continuing to stress the importance of personal hygiene.” But workers said they were required to work so closely together that it was impossible to stay healthy.
“There is no social distance,” said Lily, a 30-year-old Mexican immigrant who had worked at the plant for nearly 13 years but quit because she feared bringing the coronavirus home to her husband and young daughter.
Lily, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be published for fear of retribution, said it is not only at work where she feared the virus. “Many people are sick. Not only in the plant — in the whole city,” she said.
Sioux Falls, home to nearly 200,000 people, is the state’s largest city. TenHaken, the mayor, said in an interview that he has done everything within his power to enforce social distancing, including using a “no lingering” ordinance to confine restaurants to takeout and delivery service and strongly recommending that all nonessential businesses close.
He has little power of enforcement, however, and no ability to control what happens in nearby jurisdictions. Restaurants within Sioux Falls may have shut down for in-person dining, but the rules don’t apply outside city limits. Without a more assertive response from state government — including stay-at-home orders in at least the surrounding counties and a declaration of a statewide public health emergency — TenHaken said he fears the spread will continue.
I think it’s quite clear that Trump’s henchmen like Noem just don’t care. People will die. That’s just the way it has to be because the new GOP ethos is that to do what needs to be done in this crisis will hurt Trump and that is unacceptable.
They are not thinking this through. The pandemic has hurt Trump already because he’s botched the response at every turn. There is no going back. Individual political officials still have a chance to save themselves if they simply act like human beings. But I guess they have forgotten how to do that.