I tell everyone I’m a lifelong Iowan, but it’s not really true. I was born in Colorado, and I’ve lived in Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, and Wisconsin at various times in my life. But, I truly consider myself an Iowan. I’ve always actually been proud of it; until recently.
If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and read the article in the Atlantic entitled “Iowa Is What Happens When Government Does Nothing.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/12/how-iowa-mishandled-coronavirus-pandemic/617252/) Early in the article, Dr. Eli Perencevich, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Iowa says, “In a lot of ways Iowa is serving as the control group of what not to do.” How is it that Iowa has become THAT state? How did we become THAT state? Shouldn’t we all be terribly embarrassed to be THAT state?
Sadly, many of you aren’t embarrassed. Many Iowans go into grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, churches, and everywhere else maskless and are proud of it. They will tell you that they are making a statement about “freedom”. And in Iowa, it’s all good with our governor. She has truly led by example during this pandemic. The example she has set is to doubt the scientists, to doubt the medical experts, and to doubt the easily understandable data. She attended rallies that were certainly super-spreader events without a mask. The few almost meaningless steps she has taken are always too little and too late. So, Iowa has become the place where you can see what happens when government does nothing.
I remember my father (who was a rabid Democrat) voting for Governor Bob Ray in the day. I was a wild little liberal kid (because that’s how my father raised me) and I’d bug him about voting for a big bad Republican, and he’d tell me that Bob Ray was a good man who put the needs of all Iowans ahead of any political ideology. Governor Ray, in a position that was unpopular with his own party, welcomed Southeast Asian Tai Dam refugees into our state. He was also critical in writing and signing Chapter 20 legislation that required public employers to engage in meaningful collective bargaining with firefighters, teachers, and nurses. Bob Ray wasn’t some slogan spouting lightweight who politicized things like public health and education.
Here we are in 2020. Is there anyone who believes that Iowa’s current governor would welcome a wave of immigrants into our state and offer them an opportunity to become Iowans and offer them a better life? We actually know how Governor Reynolds feels about allowing public employees to collectively bargain. No one in Iowa wanted her and the previous governor to destroy Chapter 20, but because the Koch Brothers wanted it dismantled, they dismantled it. And when a slogan spouting lightweight tells Ms. Reynolds that people shouldn’t have to wear masks, that businesses should carry on with business as usual, and that schools should be open, regardless of the data, Ms. Reynolds has no problem towing the party line.
In the Atlantic article Dr. Perencevich says, “We know the storm’s coming, you can see it on the horizon.” Governor Reynolds has access to all of the experts who tell her that we haven’t seen the worse of this pandemic yet. In the face of overwhelming data and the advice of actual scientific and medical experts, she does nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. She continues to bully local school boards into forcing schools to be open. The truth is that there is much was don’t know about how COVID spreads among young people and it seems clear that young people don’t experience COVID symptoms in the same way that adults do. Some take that information to mean that we shouldn’t worry about bringing thousands of students into schools (along with the adults that work with them). But, a group of experts, writing in US News and World Reports, (https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2020-12-02/shut-them-down-why-schools-might-not-be-safe-during-covid-19) say, “In our opinion, the data suggests schools are NOT safe and DO contribute to the spread of the virus-both within schools and within the surrounding communities.” I promise you that no one wants to be in person with their students more than teachers, but we also recognize the seriousness of this moment and the unprecedented health risks that we are asking students and teachers to walk into.
In reading the Atlantic article I was interested to see a high school classmate (Ames High 1986, Ames High Aims High) quoted. Kevin Doerschug, the medical ICU director for the University of Iowa hospitals, described “moral distress.” Moral distress is the sense of loss and helplessness associated with health-care workers navigating limitations in space, treatment, and personnel. These workers are heroes working under unimaginable conditions that have been brought on by Iowa’s lack of action regarding COVID. Kevin talks about hospital staff crying, “The sheer enormity of it-it’s just endless”.
Teachers have our own version of Moral Distress. The challenges of navigating different learning modalities, our concern for our student’s well-being, our concerns for our own well-being and the well-being of our families. There is a lot of crying going on in our schools right now. Finding sub coverage for all of the teachers who are out with COVID or in quarantine is an almost impossible challenge. Teachers, who are already overwhelmed, are covering for their colleagues. That’s just a small piece of the new challenges going on in schools, brought on by our state’s lack of action.
For more and more of us each day, this becomes personal. On October 20th I lost my father-in-law. He had been experiencing COVID-like symptoms for about a week, but was reluctant to get tested. On the night of October 20th, he collapsed and died in an Ambulance on the way to a hospital. For several days our family didn’t really hear anything from the hospital. It wasn’t until we received the death certificate and saw COVID as a contributing factor that we found out he had been COVID positive. We all have those friends on Facebook who like to post how COVID is just like the flu and that we all should just “get over it” and “live our lives”. Well, my father-in-law was a strong man, he had survived prostate cancer, and he probably had the flu 50 or 60 times in his life. He died from COVID. It’s not the flu.
The reason people post the Facebook posts about COVID being “just like the flu”, is because our state leadership has treated it as though it’s “just the flu”. Governor Reyonds keeps telling us we have “turned a corner”, while more and more people get sick and die. Our hospitals continue to be stretched to their limits and Governor Reynolds is Tweeting out her thanks to the president for his response to COVID. Am I proud to be an Iowan? Well, I’m proud of the frontline medical workers who have to respond to Iowans unwillingness to accept science and do what is right. I’m proud of my teaching colleagues who put themselves at risk in order to support young people. I’m proud of my students who have undergone multiple changes in learning modalities, and continue to show up and make me smile. I’m proud of the Iowans who wear a mask each and every day only to be insulted by slack-jawed yokels (some of them in red hats) who think that “freedom” has something to do with selfishness. But, am I proud to be an Iowan right now? Not so much. Iowa is what happens when the government does nothing. Iowans, we deserve better.
Patrick J. Kearney