Context, of course, matters here, and the broader context is that leaders of conservative cities and states are generally behaving many magnitudes worse. In South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem has rejected public health guidance and applauded “freedom” as Covid-19 devastates her state. As cases rise, the worst-hit states are all conservative ones, and many of their leaders are following President Donald Trump’s lead in simply shrugging off the death and destruction. They deserve the bulk of the criticism.
But that doesn’t leave more liberal politicians blameless. And it certainly speaks to the inanity of deferring to the states to respond to a virus that doesn’t recognize state borders.
Take New York, a state run by a governor who wrote a book touting his leadership during the pandemic, and New York City, run by a mayor who was elected on the strength of the city’s hopeful progressives. New York City, the nation’s largest city and a major international hub, was hit hardest by the first wave of the virus; and despite being lauded (and lauding himself) as a Covid-19 hero, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made some significant and deadly mistakes early in the pandemic. The state is now faring much better, thanks to some big correctives. But there are some troubling signs — in terms of Covid-19 numbers and the political response.
The biggest problem is that even in progressive places, there isn’t always a clear relationship between the public health reality and the policies that are put in place. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, just made the decision to close the city’s public schools, based on a fairly arbitrary marker of a three percent positivity rate, despite the evidence that the worst-case fears of school re-openings — that schools would be major transmission sites — proved unfounded, that restaurants, gyms and bars were allowed to remain open and that school closures have been pushing women out of the workforce across the country. And Cuomo held a press conference where he chafed at reasonable questions and blamed individuals for tough-to-avoid community spread.
In Washington, DC, where 92% of voters cast their ballots for Joe Biden, and where low-income public school students lag far behind students in the rest of the nation, the mayor and the teachers union still can’t agree on a reopening plan, leaving families in limbo — and parents trying to work and be full-time teachers and caregivers to their children. In California, many public schools remain closed, while private ones — like those attended by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s children — are open.
The kids who are hurt the worst by all of this are, predictably, the ones who were already the most vulnerable: those who are poor, and for whom the public school system is a necessary lifeline.
And while liberal leaders are rightly, if often imperfectly, pushing for policies that would help to slow the spread, they’re too often behaving as though the rules don’t apply to them. California, for example, has admirably put tough Covid-19 protocols in place to prevent the disease’s spread, but state leaders personally flout them: Newsom recently dined with a mask-less group at the pricey French Laundry in Napa; Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi got her hair done in a salon and then organized an indoor dinner for newly-elected members of Congress (she canceled after public outrage).
The only answer here is a clear national plan of action — exactly what has been missing from the Trump White House. When Joe Biden enters the office of the presidency on Jan. 20, 2021, any strategy he puts in place will be too late for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives, lost their jobs or seen their health compromised. And while promising vaccines could be a factor early on in Biden’s tenure, we will almost surely not be out of the woods by late January.
A Biden administration will need to address the many issues Americans are facing because of the pandemic: the immediate health threat, of course, but also the huge gap in education that so many students have fallen into, and that is the most pronounced for those who were already struggling; the economic hit borne by America’s mothers, who have scaled back, dropped out or been laid off in massive numbers as school and childcare closures have put full-time caregiving work suddenly on the shoulders of women whose male partners and children’s fathers fail to do their fair share. The short-term, reactionary policy-making that has characterized so much of this pandemic response will not suffice.
We need real leadership. Unfortunately, there are few models of what that might look like.