Dispatch from America: Life, death, and a grim milestone | Opinion

The motto of this state is a Latin phrase that translates, ‘To the stars through difficulty.’  While there has been plenty of difficulty for Kansans in the past year and a half, there have been precious few stars

In Topeka, the copper-domed statehouse is topped by a 22-foot tall bronze sculpture of a warrior of the Kansa nation, the indigenous people for whom the state is named Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector).

By Max McCoy

TOPEKA, Kan. — In this capital city deep in the American interior, life continues despite a pandemic that has killed 1 of every 500 Kansans.

Residents drink at quaint pubs with brews named for long-lost steam locomotives, return in person to college classrooms empty for 18 months and carry on with wedding plans that were once derailed. But just a month ago, the governor of this state took to social media to urge Kansans to get vaccinated against a virus that had filled the capital city’s largest hospital and overwhelmed its emergency department. Medical staff and other front-line workers are suffering the kind of deep fatigue typically seen only in war zones.

The enemy is COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that emerged in December 2019. The virus has claimed more than 6,000 victims in this predominantly rural region known for its wheatfields and sunflower patches, a state that most outsiders still associate with the 1939 movie, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Aiding the infection is a populist cultural movement that is skeptical of medical science, prizes the personal freedom to make bad choices and put others at risk, and regards members of the minority party — not the coronavirus — as the real threat.

This is flyover country. Most people only get a glimpse of it from 30,000 feet or as a blur through a car windshield while zipping along the interstate at 75 mph. But stop and talk to some of the people here, and you may see the flinty individualism that has been passed down from frontier times.

The motto of this state is a Latin phrase that translates, “To the stars through difficulty.”  While there has been plenty of difficulty for Kansans in the past year and a half, there have been precious few stars.

But while it would be reasonable to expect the state’s top lawmakers to do everything in their power to combat the virus, the leaders of the dominant political party have instead thrown their considerable support behind thwarting any coherent science-based response to the crisis. Last Monday, those Republican leaders announced a special committee charged with blocking the federal government’s vaccine mandates. The leaders framed the issue as federal overreach into the private lives of Kansans that must be stopped, ignoring data showing the unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die from the virus. For the party faithful, the mantra of “personal freedom” trumps all, including expert medical advice, social responsibility and common decency.

“We need to check the federal government pretty hard and stop them,” said Rick Wilburn, a ruling party leader representing the central part of the state. “This is just completely out of control.”

On the same day Wilburn and his party were plotting to thwart federal vaccine mandates, the state’s 71-year-old governor, Laura Kelly, ordered flags to be flown at half-staff to mark the grim milestone of 6,000 COVID dead. Kelly is the putative head of the state’s minority political party, the Democrats, whose power is concentrated mostly in the state’s urban population centers and in far-flung university towns. Kelly’s attempts to use her executive power to check the virus through lockdowns and a statewide mask mandate have been hobbled by a political battle that resulted in new checks to emergency powers that make a coordinated statewide response impossible.

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Kansas has long been known for its populist bent, politics driven by religious fervor, and a history of voting against its own true interests. The first major influenza pandemic began here, at a federal army camp in 1918, and in an odd twist of fate this new pandemic appears to have claimed its first American victim on Kansas soil as well.

The first U.S. death is now believed to have occurred in Kansas, on Jan. 9, 2020, and the victim was a 78-year-old Black woman and grandmother in Leavenworth County, in the populous northeastern corner of the state. Her name was Lovell “Cookie” Brown and her family did not learn of her cause of death until visiting the monolithic Bureau of Vital Statistics here, where the official cause was listed on a state-issued certificate of death.

Because of America’s strict “privacy laws” that prevent the disclosure of medical information, apparently even for the dead, Brown’s family was kept in the dark about her death for nearly a year and a half. Neither the hospital where Brown died, nor the state agency responsible for keeping track of the death toll from the virus, informed the family that her death certificate had been amended to reflect COVID, even though they had long suspected the disease was the culprit.

Nationally, the disease has killed 675,000, which exceeds the national death toll for the 1918 pandemic and equals the number of Americans killed during this nation’s own bloody Civil War to end chattel slavery, a century and a half ago. As if fate were against this young republic, which is not yet 250 years old, there has come a triumvirate of seemingly insurmountable problems: Social unrest driven by longstanding racial wounds from a founding built on the enslavement of human beings; a political divide in which one party claims allegiance not to ideals but to a defeated cult figure and rejects fact in favor of expedient lies and fantastical thinking; and a heartland backlash against medical science and expertise that has resulted in needless suffering and death.

Even though life-saving vaccines have been available to most Kansans since the spring, many have rejected the free and effective shots that would have brought the pandemic under control and might even have saved their own lives. It is the kind of nonsensical thinking that is difficult for observers in first world nations to understand, yet it’s political coin for those attempting to sway a pandemic-weary populace into keeping the ruling party in power.

Only 47% of Kansans have received the full dose of the vaccine, according to the state agency that tracks such things, lagging behind much of the rest of the country and far short of the number needed to defeat the coronavirus and its deadly variant, delta. By rank, Kansas is firmly in the middle of the 50 states; New England states have the best vaccination rates, while West Virginia — an Appalachian state that is among the country’s poorest — has the worst. Resistance to the vaccine has centered culturally around adherents of the Republican Party, whose leaders have whipped up resistance to vaccine initiatives and mask mandates to fight the influence of the Democrats, the faction that currently holds the seat of federal executive power and has slim margins in the bicameral legislature in Washington, a city in the District of Columbia on the nation’s eastern seaboard.

Washington is 1,200 miles from Topeka, but a handful of militant extremists from Kansas made the trek to participate in an insurrection Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. The aim was to stop the certification of the electoral vote for Joseph R. Biden, who had defeated Donald John Trump in the presidential election. The Kansans joined hundreds of other insurrectionists as they smashed their way into the capitol while both chambers were convened for the certification vote, forcing lawmakers to flee for their lives. It was a remarkable and unsettling turn for a nation that had previously prided itself on the peaceful transition of presidential power. Although the attempted coup was unsuccessful, four of the six members of the Kansas Congressional delegation fueled the political lie that the election had been stolen by voting against certifying results from the state of Arizona, which had gone to Biden.

Despite a lack of evidence that the election had been improper, the Republicans — rallying around their ousted and inexplicably influential leader, Trump — have continued to maintain that election reform was necessary. In states like Kansas, where the Republican faction has a firm hold on the Legislature, an avalanche of election laws have been passed, under the pretext of safeguarding elections, that result in stricter voter identification requirements, limited poll hours, the transfer of power from impartial election officials, and in some cases forbidding observers from handing water to those standing in line to vote. Invariably, such laws tend to suppress minority votes.

Kansas, for example, has added such severe restrictions and penalties on the distribution of ballots that nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters have suspended traditional voter registration drives until courts provide greater clarity. While voter fraud is all but nonexistent in this state or elsewhere, the lie of a rigged election has gained such traction that now most Republicans not only believe that Trump won, but that the belief is essential to defining the party.

Such an insistence on belief rather than fact has tainted nearly every aspect of the party that is now almost exclusively controlled by Trump, a philanderer and former reality TV personality who was elected in 2016 despite bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. In addition to his lies about a rigged election, Trump has also spread misinformation about the coronavirus, despite having been infected while in office. Resistance to mask mandates and vaccine initiatives has become a sign of solidarity among the Republican faithful, and bitter arguments over public safety measures have rocked the meetings of even the smallest units of government. School board members and county commissioners are often confronted by angry crowds, armed with passion and disinformation, who demand freedom from public health.

Such is public life now in Kansas.

In Topeka, the copper-domed statehouse is topped by a 22-foot tall bronze sculpture of a warrior of the Kansa nation, the indigenous people for whom the state is named. The warrior has an arrow nocked and his bow at full draw, perpetually taking aim at the sky in the direction of the North Star. The confidence of the stately bronze archer is in sharp contrast to the lawmaking below, where political capital is spent pandering to populist fervor and blunting the state’s ability to coordinate a response to a once-in-a-lifetime public health emergency.

In many ways, the state of Kansas — which contains the geographic center of the 48 contiguous United States — is a cypher for the rest of America. It is a compellingly beautiful swatch of heartland, wheatfields and all, populated by people of passion and faith, but paralyzed by toxic politics fueled by mistrust and misinformation. Kansas still has time to avoid unprecedented calamity, but only if its majority party leaders choose the public good ahead of political expediency and its weary residents begin to regard the virus, and not one another’s politics, as the enemy.

A native Kansan, Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. He wrote this piece for the Kansas Reflector, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.