And yet, despite these indisputable indicators of failed public policy, Mr. Lee has no intention of reversing course. Most Southern Republicans don’t, either, and that’s why Southerners will continue to die unnecessary deaths — if not from Covid, then from natural disasters, or self-administered abortions, or gun violence, or any number of other preventable tragedies.
Whether you believe in climate change or not, living without access to electricity and safe drinking water is a public health emergency. Whether you need an abortion or not, living where it is difficult or impossible to obtain one is a public health emergency because clinics that provide abortions also provide crucial preventive care like mammograms and cervical cancer screening — services that will no longer be offered when those clinics close. Having more people carrying more guns into more public places is clearly a hair-on-fire public health emergency.
There are people down here working harder than you would believe to make life better for everyone, including the folks who keep voting charlatans into office. These heroes are working to get their communities vaccinated, to defend mask mandates in schools, to protect the environment, to increase access to health care, and to reform a hopelessly broken criminal justice system, just for starters. Every day I hear a new story about someone, or some organization, whose work gives me renewed hope, just when I am in danger of succumbing to despair.
But every step of the way they are fighting against their own elected officials to accomplish anything. And it is long past time to recognize that some matters are too important to be entrusted to state governments anymore.
If there is anything this pandemic has taught us, it’s that public health is not a local matter. When hospitals in the red-state countryside close, their patients arrive in blue-city hospitals, taking up beds and lifesaving equipment and putting health care workers at risk. When people in the red states aren’t vaccinated, the virus continues to evolve, creating variants that pose a health risk to people everywhere else.
We don’t trust red-state governments to set baseline environmental-protection standards. That’s a responsibility of the federal government because air and water do not observe state borders. In the same way and for the same reasons, we can no longer trust Republican governors and legislatures to protect public health.
It’s great that the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education is investigating Mr. Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates. It will be even better if federal legislation shoring up the social safety net is signed into law, expanding Medicaid in Tennessee and the other 11 states that so far have refused to accept this desperately needed health care funding. But we still need federal gun-safety legislation. We still need a federal law that protects a woman’s right to choose.