Two weeks ago, I was forced to prematurely pack my bags during my last semester of college at the University of California because of COVID-19. Returning home to Iowa so abruptly — leaving behind friends I might not see for quite some time — was hard enough, but as I drove past crowded parks and heard the familiar whir of cars by my house on my first day back in Iowa, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was enraged. Why weren’t Iowans staying home? Why were my final collegiate days cut short if people in my home state weren’t even taking COVID-19 seriously?
I quickly answered my own question with yet another: in the absence of a statewide stay-at-home order, why would they?
Today, Iowa is only one of five states in the country that has not issued a formal stay-at-home order. Out of those five, Iowa has the most COVID-positive citizens.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has been openly against such a directive, citing non-public health data in a flimsy attempt to claim self quarantining isn’t necessary. And yet, even as she downplayed the deadly virus, she has also issued a piecemeal directive to close gathering spaces such as zoos and parks, she has effectively issued a stay-at-home order. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci praised governors such as Reynolds for issuing piecemeal directives that are “functionally equivalent” to stay-at-home orders.
But if that’s the case, why didn’t Gov. Reynolds just issue a stay-at-home order in the first place? Why has she resisted issuing this directive?
Reynolds’ incomplete and incoherent restrictions not only reflect a reluctance to declare COVID-19 the crisis that it is in the state of Iowa; they also reflect the state’s reluctance to apportion the necessary resources to keep Iowans safe. Without issuing a clear directive, the state downplays the very real threat of COVID-19, thereby relieving itself from any responsibility to protect its citizens.
When a state declares a statewide stay-at-home order, it simultaneously declares the gravitas of the situation and assumes the responsibility of coordinating a response. Take California, for example, where Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place directive served as the basis for statewide provisions such as rent relief, increased hospital capacity and food security measures for the poor. The Iowa state government has scarcely discussed any such social protections in the wake of this crisis.
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Reynolds’ piecemeal response downplays the seriousness of COVID-19 in Iowa, and tacitly relieves the state of the burden of provisioning for the crisis. Instead of utilizing the state government to take charge, in a recent news conference Reynolds placed the burden of navigating the virus’s potentially catastrophic social and economic impact on individual Iowans, essentially telling them to go it alone. In another news conference, she even encouraged Iowans to “take responsibility for their health and the health of others” by “stay[ing] home” — the implication being that each of us must “take responsibility” for our health because the state government simply won’t.
While many public-facing businesses have made their commitment to physical distancing clear, workers who are less visible — particularly those in Iowa’s large industrial and agricultural sectors — are not granted the same degree of precaution. Work simply goes on, whether physical distancing practices are in place or not.
Yet, if the virus proliferates and people continue to die, supposedly only we individual Iowans are to blame; the government shirks its responsibility, and wipes its hands of the matter.
The tendency of Iowa’s leadership to blame individual behavior instead of its own systemic failure is not new. Indeed, Reynolds’ COVID-19 response reflects a larger pattern: Iowa has long spurned social programs in favor of corporate interests which feigns economic stewardship while actually ignoring the well-being of the people who put them in office.
Incentivized by tax breaks and good press, corporations are offering aid that is not evaluated for its actual impact. By focusing on the economy instead of social well-being in a disaster, the government not only fails to provide for the safety of the citizens it was created to serve; it also incentivizes corporate-led disaster response by companies who have their own best interests in mind, not those of the general public.
Last week, Iowa topped 1,000 COVID-19 cases. It happened on the first day Reynolds looked into provisioning adequate medical resources for the crisis. She announced $24 million in small business grants.
As we’ve learned from COVID-19 epicenters around the world, early and preventive action is essential. Her responses, although well appreciated, are regrettably reactionary, coming much later than the response of most governors across the nation. Most importantly, they still fail to grant the basic social protections that facilitate effective physical distancing. Rather than waiting for individuals and private organizations to pick up the tab on responses to COVID-19 and assuming piecemeal responsibilities when it’s too late, Gov. Reynolds needs to issue a stay-at-home directive and actively scaffold social protections as soon as possible.