New York City is getting the bulk of the attention these days as the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in this county, but that focus will soon switch to a part of the country that has been even slower than the Big Apple to take the threat seriously.
I’m referring to the Solid South–the 11 states that made up the Confederacy and are big supporters of Donald Trump. It is also the poorest region of the country, has the highest rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other diseases that make Covid-19 a killer, and has the fewest hospitals and lowest rate of medically insured.
“We, in general, have a sicker population and we are concerned that our outcomes…are going to be worse because of that,” said Joseph Kanter, a public health official in Louisiana who was referring to the enter South in his statement.
These state are also led predominantly by Republican governors–Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky are the exceptions–who have been slow or unwilling to embrace the concepts of social distancing and lockdowns.
(The seven remaining states in the U.S. that don’t have lockdowns as I write this are all governed by Republicans. Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleaded with these states Sunday to consider a lockdown of just one week, but he shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for it to happen.)
There are a variety of reasons why Republican governors have been dragging their feet on this issue: Skepticism about the science, damage to the economy, reluctance to buck a president who has been slow to get on the bandwagon, and a persistent belief among conservatives that the coronavirus is overrated and/or a hoax by liberals to make the president look bad.
But the virus really doesn’t care about politics, and Louisiana, Georgia and Florida are rapidly developing new hot spots for the disease. Alabama, Georgia and Florida recently issued lockdown orders, although none of them has the severity you find in places like California.
Gov. Brian Kent of Georgia, who said he learned just last week that coronavirus can be transmitted by people who appear to be healthy (health officials have been saying that for weeks), exempted the state’s beach communities from his lockdown. Many coastal residents are not happy.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has one of the largest population of elderly in the country, long resisted any attempts to restrict the movement of people until finally giving in last week. But he did exempt religious gatherings, which are proving to be a major source of the disease around the world.
While most of the mainline religions have canceled services or moved them online, fundamentalist and evangelical churches have resisted such restrictions in this country. In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge has been arrested for refusing an order to cancel services despite a recent surge of cases in the state.
The largest source of coronavirus cases in the Sacramento region–71 to date–is members of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church. Church officials say they are no longer holding services, but public health officials say they have reports of large groups of church members gathering in homes for services.
The problem isn’t limited to the United States. The biggest source of coronavirus cases in Israel is the nation’s ultraorthodox Jews, who refuse to cancel religious services and other large gatherings. (They were also the source of the measles outbreak in New York City last year.)
Iran emerged as one of the hardest-hit countries as clerics and worshipers were reluctant to interfere with religious traditions, and people gathering at holy shrines in Qom. Health officials in South Korea traced a large share of cases to the secretive Shincheonji Church. In Muslim-majority Malaysia, authorities have reported hundreds of cases linked to an Islamic religious gathering.
Next Sunday is Easter, the holiest day in Christianity, and it will occur right in the middle of what health officials say will be the worst two weeks since the coronavirus hit the U.S. President Trump is warning that tens of thousands could die in the near future, and Adams has said this will be our next Pearl Harbor.
We’ll see whether our fundamentalist brethren do what’s best for their fellow Americans, or ignore the advice of health officials and trust in God to protect all of us. We’ll also see if Republican governors have the guts to stand up and tell them to shut down their services.