December 10, 2020
Whether you love masks, hate them or can’t work out which end goes over your ear, we can still agree on one thing: this pandemic has been mishandled. As Christmas approaches, we are left in a situation where neighbor has locked horns with neighbor and the anger levels don’t have much further to rise.
Last week, the county was placed under a mask order and those who do not believe in the use of face coverings were instantly livid. This is understandable, but we are not here to argue the merits of social distancing because that’s not the point of this editorial.
We also realize that the county order has been superseded by the state’s decision to require masks, but this column is about something more worrying: the reactions we have witnessed over the last week. What concerns us is that our community has been angry with a specific set of people – and it’s very much the wrong set of people.
The blame has fallen on the folks who run our local public health system. Members of our own community who have not been elected to leadership, and whose careers are all about public wellbeing.
These people should never have been the targets of our wrath. Under normal circumstances, none of us would question that these individuals spend their days focused on a single goal: to protect their communities. We should not have been put in a position where we are now questioning those motives.
Our nation should have come together from the start and made a decision on how to handle the crisis. If masks were necessary for one, they should have been necessary for all. If herd immunity was the way forward for one, it should have been the strategy for all.
But that’s not what happened. At the federal level – the very top of the pyramid – we got little in the way of consistency. More importantly, we were told it was up to the states.
And so the states took hold of the problem, and for a while that seemed to work. Unfortunately, problems were bubbling under the surface because, for many of us, the grass was quickly starting to seem greener on other sides.
Some in South Dakota were looking at us, for example, and wishing their governor would issue some restrictions to slow the spread. Meanwhile, some of us were looking at South Dakota and lamenting that their governor was more interested in “freedom” than ours.
The cracks widened as the months went on, and the pandemic began to get more serious in this region and all across America. Since fall, we’ve seen daily infections rocket and tempers follow.
As things took that turn for the worse, the state seemed to flail, unable to figure out the best way forward. Patience had run out and few people wanted to see the hardships of another lockdown.
We have been supporters of the governor and state staff and we are just as reluctant to see measures that cause our economy to suffer any more than it already has. However, we believe they made one crucial bad decision at that moment: they passed the buck down to the counties.
The counties didn’t want that responsibility either, and who could blame them? Our commissioners have not stood in the way as elected officials made requests for closing the courthouse, installing sneeze guards and more, but nor have they been inclined to take the lead on deciding how this community should tackle the crisis.
They do not have the statutory power to make public health decisions. On the other hand, would they have used that power if given it? As members of the community who are elected to lead but must also live and work among the very people they are angering, how many of us would have felt comfortable to take such an unpopular stance?
And so that responsibility has been shoved all the way down to the bottom: the worker bee level, the core of the community, the people who work and live alongside the rest of us. The county health official and public health workers, community members who must balance doing their job with still being able to live here when all this is over. Neighbors we know personally, who have worked seven days a week for coming up on ten months, who do the actual work on the ground to help slow the spread.
The further down that totem pole that responsibility was pushed, the closer it got to the community and the more visceral the backlash. National news stories have spoken about situations in which public health workers have needed the protection of law enforcement for themselves and their children against angry members of the public who knew exactly who they were and didn’t have to look far to figure out where they lived.
Public health staff are quitting all over the country, and we don’t blame them for a second. We can assure you that daily life for our own public health folks is just as stressful and upsetting.
These people were never meant to be our leaders and have never asked for that privilege. All they want to do is protect their community.
They’ve jabbed us against the flu for years and we all thanked them for it. They’ve visited our new mothers and helped them settle into parenthood, and we thanked them for it. They’ve screened us to check we’re not in danger from serious diseases, and we thanked them for it. But they’re not getting much in the way of thanks now they’ve been forced to take on the task of telling us all what to do.
Whether you agree with masks and social distancing or not doesn’t matter to this specific problem. Whether or not you believe it’s wrong for the government to tell us what to do also doesn’t factor in.
We think there’s something more important for us to agree on: our health workers don’t deserve our hate. This is about remembering our humanity and showing compassion to the people we once venerated for their work. We don’t need to agree with them, but we do need to recognize that they are making decisions based on the best information they can get. Cursing at them and making threats is despicable.
We have been pushed into this position where we are looking in the wrong place to direct our blame. We have lacked in leadership during this crisis. Nobody wanted to be the target for the sheer fury being levelled at our leaders, so the buck kept being passed until it couldn’t be passed any more.
It’s important to remember that nobody alive today has ever dealt with a pandemic on this scale, and there are bound to be missteps. The people to whom this task has fallen are doing their best. Even if we don’t agree with them, let’s appreciate the fact that they’re trying.
We all have different needs and priorities, and that’s ok – this doesn’t need to come to blows if we’ve all got the best interests of the community in our hearts. We are going to get through this, the end is now in sight and these are good things. All we ask is that everyone is allowed to still be standing when we get there.