Bookman: History might prove harsh judge of Kemp’s pandemic response

April 20, Gov. Brian Kemp announced an initial easing of restrictions on some businesses, including barbershops and tattoo parlors. Critics said the restrictions intended to contain the spread of COVID-19 were ended prematurely. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

We are reaping what we have sown.

Just six weeks ago, President Trump was pushing Republican governors in states such as Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Texas to reopen their economies faster than disease experts recommended, then applauding when they did so. Trump saw a recovering economy as essential to his re-election, and he didn’t seem to give a damn about lesser priorities, such as protecting American lives and health.

In fact, when Vice President Mike Pence visited Georgia in late May, he cited Gov. Brian Kemp’s early decision to relax coronavirus restrictions as “an example to the nation” that other state leaders ought to emulate. 

“In a very real sense, I think history will record that Georgia helped lead the way back to a prosperous American economy,” Pence said at an Atlanta restaurant, with a beaming Kemp at his side.

On that day, May 22, Georgia had recorded 813 new cases of the virus; 889 Georgians were hospitalized that day with the disease. Since then, the number of new daily cases in Georgia has almost quadrupled, to an average of more than 3,000, and the number of Georgians hospitalized with the virus has almost tripled. The number of deaths has declined, but with cases and hospitalizations now soaring, the death toll is expected to jump as well over the next few weeks.

Back then, Kemp said he would “let history be the judge of what ends up being right and wrong;” today, that verdict does not appear to be kind. Even now, with conservative governors in Texas and other states finally ordering masks to be worn in public, Kemp refuses to take that minimal but highly effective step. It is an abdication of leadership responsibility that ought to have been unimaginable, but has become par for the course at both the state and federal levels.

The consequences of that abdication include tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths nationally. Read that sentence again, and then again, to absorb its full impact: “The consequences of that abdication include tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths nationally.” To compound that tragedy, the return to normalcy that Kemp, Trump and others have attempted to pursue by reopening too early is now farther away than ever.

Take, for example, the question of whether schools can reopen safely in the fall. Trump is insistent that schools open on schedule, to the point of trying to order the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to weaken its guidelines on how to reopen safely. As he tweeted Wednesday:

“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”

The day of that tweet, Germany reported 356 new cases of coronavirus. Denmark reported 12 new cases. The United States reported 58,600. If other countries are doing things that we cannot, from playing professional sports to opening schools safely to dining in restaurants, it’s because they have benefited from leadership and have shown the discipline, sacrifice and patience that we have not.

Early in this pandemic, back in the days when Trump at least pretended to care, he called himself a “wartime president,” comparing himself to Franklin Roosevelt.

“To this day, nobody has ever seen (anything) like it, what they were able to do during World War II,” Trump said. “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.” 

With those words, Trump was calling upon a powerful cultural memory. On the homefront in WWII, our grandparents and great-grandparents proudly accepted rationing, price controls, a military draft, travel restrictions, lights-out requirements, etc. Nobody whined about their “freedom” being taken away or their rights being “violated”; they did it for each other, for their country.

But because Trump personally cannot conceive of sacrificing for the good of the country, because he cannot bring himself to do something as simple as being seen in public in a mask, he also cannot conceive that others might be willing to do so if asked. As a result, we haven’t made the sacrifice, we haven’t done the work, we keep looking for the easy way out of this catastrophe, and the virus keeps reminding us that there isn’t one.