Thousands of lives are on the line. Ohio House task force should act like it.

April 22, 2020 12:15 am

Members of the Economic Recovery Task Force are seen at a virtual meeting in April. A state representative wants to see the Ohio General Assembly allow for virtual committee hearings and testimony with the pandemic ongoing.

I started tracking the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths in my day planner once a week on Monday, March 30. It was 2,400 people. By April 6 it had reached 9,600 people. On April 13, it stood at 22,109 people. As of this writing, on April 21, it’s 42,458 people. 

That’s three weeks and tens of thousands of lives — tens of thousands of American families shattered forever. There will be tens of thousands more, and my heart breaks for every one.

We’ve all watched the slow creep of this new coronavirus across the world, so it would seem obvious that as large-population hot spots in America like New York City got slammed, what hit them would hit us, just later. It would infiltrate America’s larger cities, and then suburbia, and then rural areas. This gave us time to act.

We hunkered down, on orders from experts in public health, and we blunted its impact. Our actions every day continue to do so. New York City got slammed because the threat was largely unknown, people were unprepared, and the virus thrived for weeks undetected before devastating the population.

We wouldn’t be caught on our heels; we could assume a defensive posture, and did.

So imagine my consternation as I dutifully logged the sad figure of American families left brokenhearted by this awful pandemic each week and noticed another disturbing upward trend: The lifting of voices of those who would have us abandon our defenses.

I’m fond of boxing. It has never occurred to me while sparring that after sustaining the impact of a round of blows, dodging and blocking, and perhaps leveling a few counter-punches of my own, that I should just drop my gloves to my sides and get knocked out. A winning strategy, it is not.

Christopher Murray, the director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, has told CBS News’ Face the Nation that premature easing of restrictions meant to stem the spread of the virus could have disastrous effects.

“The first testing we’ve done on this is if you opened up the entire country May 1, then we would very clearly have a rebound,” Murray said.

States need to hit their peaks, he explained, and then allow for two or three weeks to come down from that peak and establish adequate testing and contact tracing to prevent widespread resurgence.

NPR reported Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture — the functional equivalent of a state — declared its COVID-19 emergency in February, lifted restrictions on March 19, and declared another emergency April 13 because of a resurgence.

This period of closure is painful, for all of us. The thought of prolonging it is daunting. Economic anxiety is high. Personal stress is high, and in many rural areas that haven’t — yet — seen large COVID-19 outbreaks, patience is wearing thin. Many small businesses can’t sustain more than a month or two of lost revenue before permanent closure becomes a sickening inevitability.

In early March, foreseeing how this would play out, I observed that we were all about to find out in the most painful ways just how dangerous it is to have so many millions of Americans living right on the edge, paycheck-to-paycheck. We are, and it’s truly awful.

We are also finding some significant gaps in the ability of our government to respond to such a crisis in a timely and efficient way. That includes direct and adequate relief to families facing mounting bills and obligations, making sure small businesses and community banks have the resources they need to weather the storm, and that our public health capacity for testing and tracing is built out sufficiently to reopen safely. The work is ongoing and critical.

This is a moment where all government leaders should be focused on doing that hard work necessary to facilitate this relief.

While some are, others clearly are not.

Instead of doing the serious work of actual governance, we’re seeing an Ohio House Economic Recovery Task Force play forum to political conspiracy theories, unemployment victim-blaming, and calls to reopen Ohio without planning, without precaution, and without forethought.

This task force had an opportunity to conduct a sober, thoughtful study of how to reopen Ohio safely. What I’m seeing instead, in a nutshell, is political bomb-throwing. It’s both gross and grossly irresponsible.

Punches hurt. They hurt when they are landing on your arms, shoulders, gloves, and elbows. They hurt a helluva lot more when they are landing on your ribs, face, and head. We must have the patience to maintain our defensive position until the bell rings, and then we must have the compassion, the sense of community, and the sense of purpose to rewrite our social contract so that so many of us are never this vulnerable again.

This is an ongoing catastrophe, but with that comes an opportunity to build something new, something better, something stronger. We must dedicate ourselves to doing so and elect leaders similarly so dedicated. 

So pay attention now, to who wants to protect lives and use the levers of our government to help us in our time of greatest need, and to who devalues life in favor of cheap political points, childish impatience, wild-eyed theories, pettiness, and temper tantrums.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt