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Governors reopening their states are endangering American lives

Updated 11:43 PM ET, Tue April 21, 2020

Editor's Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - How do you explain the utter idiocy of what we're seeing in the US? While the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped through country after country, the United States government stands out for seeming one of the least interested in actually fighting it -- particularly during the critical first few weeks of its spread.

And while America's health care workers have gone to extraordinary lengths to help infected people across the country, any claim we ever had to enjoying the best system in the world has been revealed as questionable at best -- many of our hospitals are nearly maxed out, we barely have tested 1% of our population and President Donald Trump appears more interested in bragging about his approval ratings and television ratings than leveraging the full power of the federal government to save lives.

Any promise of putting "America First" has turned into a laughable punchline -- we are first, yes, in coronavirus infections and deaths. We're No. 1!

And while the man in the White House deserves much of the blame for our national failure for doing the bare minimum to address this pandemic, if coronavirus has revealed anything, it's that proud ignorance and do-nothing dangerousness is largely a Republican problem. And now these traits are costing American lives.

Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida -- all states with Republican governors -- have announced plans to roll back social distancing measures over the next few weeks. According to public health experts and institutions, including the WHO and CDC, social distancing is already the absolute baseline when it comes to facing down a deadly and highly contagious disease. We really need the mass manufacture of tests and the attendant supplies necessary to test, not to mention adequate tracking and treatment. Plus, of course, actual widespread testing.

The United States has tested about 4 million people over several months. A new Harvard report says we need to be testing more like 5 million every day. But because our federal government is failing so miserably in that effort, the rest of us are left to do what we can to at least try not to get this thing in the first place. That means staying away from other people. And it means hoping our states, cities and municipalities will step up and fill the leadership vacuum left by the White House. Because this is less a problem of people than leadership: Overwhelming majorities of Americans under lockdown orders are complying with them. Overwhelming majorities of Americans support the restrictions. But we know that many people will, understandably, trust what our leaders tell us -- and too many of our conservative leaders are not earning that trust.

These Republican governors don't even want to do the bare minimum of telling people to stay home, despite the nearly unanimous advice of public health authorities and experts. (I say "nearly unanimous" here simply as a hedge; I actually couldn't find a single reputable public health authority or expert who recommends ending social distancing).

"If you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you're going to set yourself back," Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC's George Stephanopolous. So as painful as it is to go by the careful guidelines of gradually phasing into a reopening, it's going to backfire."

What's behind these governors' incredibly rash decisions? Well, this is what happens when much of your party unites against scientific consensus and expertise, and when you think careful and studied conclusions are for liberal eggheads.

Trump didn't invent any of this. A Republican Party that sowed distrust in science because the reality of climate change was financially inconvenient for fossil fuel companies, and determined that conservative, patriarchal Christian morality should take precedence over public health in how we teach our kids about sex and the human body, is exactly what brought us Trump in the first place.

It's not that Republican leaders are universally ignorant. It's that many Republicans have learned that undermining the scientific consensus and fueling distrust of experts -- and even education itself -- helps to keep them in power. Idiocy isn't an unintended consequence; it's the whole plan.

Of course, there are exceptions. Republican Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio have been forthright in following the scientists and putting the public's health and safety first. And some Democrats have missed the mark. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been sharply (and rightly) criticized for failing to address the threat swiftly and thoroughly enough. But many of the governors who have tried to protect the people of their state have paid a price. Trump began one of his press briefings by going after Hogan, saying "he didn't really understand what was going on."

Viruses, unfortunately, respect neither politics nor borders. A whole lot of Georgians backed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams for governor (and a whole lot of them were systematically excluded from voting for her) in a hugely controversial 2018 race.

Democrat Andrew Gillum faced similar underhanded (and racist) tactics when he ran (and lost) his race for governor of Florida that year.

The people of Florida and Georgia who wanted better than they got are going to suffer along with everyone else. And, frankly, given the devastating impact the virus is having on black communities, many of the same voters who backed rational, science-affirming candidates will be the ones who will suffer the most from their states' feckless leadership.

But the ripple effects of a bad decision from the Georgia governor will not be confined to Georgia (or Florida, or Tennessee, or South Carolina, or any other state that re-opens too soon). Viruses don't stop at state lines. They don't respect physical boundaries. If a person in Florida has the virus and goes to a rally across the border in Georgia, the virus isn't going to stay home.

Even Trump sycophant South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham knows this. "I worry that our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon," Graham tweeted on Tuesday, noting that "(w)hat happens in Georgia will impact us in South Carolina." Indeed, it will, which is why we need clear federal guidelines based on scientific evidence and aimed at facilitating good public health, not hodge-podge and politicized suggestions based on individual governors' whims.

But Graham, predictably, didn't go that far. "We respect Georgia's right to determine its own fate, but we are all in this together," he tweeted, somewhat nonsensically. Good for Graham for pushing back on his neighbor. But if we're all in this together, then Georgia's decisions aren't just determining its own fate -- it's determining all of our fates.

Especially in times of crisis, civilians need intelligent, thoughtful leadership. We need leaders who understand they are not experts on everything under the sun, and that leading with a narrow and reactionary ideology is no way to govern. We need leaders who will take pains to understand the scientific consensus, make difficult choices when necessary and lead with the truth.

Unfortunately, the US doesn't have that at a federal level -- and several red states don't have it at a state level, either. And we're all paying the price for this long-time GOP malfeasance.


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