Reader responds to COVID-19 editorial and letter

By BEVERLY JOHNSON,

To the Editor:

I have a few comments related to The Star Herald’s editorial of May 20 on the lawsuit filed against the Mississippi Department of Health for lack of transparency in releasing nursing home COVID-19 information. My comments are also related to Sue Harmon’s letter praising Governor Tate Reeves, also known as “Tater Tot” to some and as “Tater Head” to me. I agree with the gist of Harmon’s comments regarding necessary actions taken by Reeves during the pandemic, but I have some instances where I cannot approve of his actions. I imagine it was painful for him to be called a fascist when he issued Stay at Home orders, especially because this attack came from the very same Confederate flag wavers and constitutional 2nd Amendment fanatics who helped vote him into office.  Although he did dally in taking needed actions, while he watched and waited to see what President Trump might do,  he finally did have the courage to definitively take a stand, albeit letting coronavirus spread throughout the state while he fiddled.

One issue I have with Reeves is that he has shown a flagrant disregard for truth and factualness in several instances during the pandemic. In this, of course, he takes after his bro,  Donald Trump, for whom Reeves is a slavish acolyte.  One instance of untruth relates to his refusal to be transparent about nursing home information, a refusal which he claims is on legal grounds.  Another instance relates to lying about his declaration of April as “Confederate Heritage Month,” which he also claimed was done on legal grounds. Another instance is his statement throughout that “the government can’t shut down churches,” also on alleged legal grounds. 

These three legal stances of Reeves appear to have been pulled out of the ozone somewhere or possibly the vacuum of knowledge in which his brain sometimes functions.  Simple cross checking, or even common knowledge, invalidates all of his stances, so a law degree or legal education isn’t required to refute them.  Google or Alexa could do it.  Reeves himself is not an attorney, since his educational background is in economics and business finance. This isn’t an excuse though for misleading the public as to what is legal and what is not. As chief executive for the state his legal facts need to be in order before he spouts off on nationwide and local TV. 

Lynn Fitch, state Attorney General, also has a background in business, along with a law degree.  Because she is an elected official, however, and not appointed, she supposedly serves as legal counsel and representative for the people of Mississippi.  Thus, she does not explicitly serve as legal counsel to the governor.  If she is nevertheless feeding him his legal knowledge, then perhaps she is the one facilitating him in making a fool out of himself, although he is certainly capable of doing that totally on his own. This is demonstrated by his recent appointment of Burl Cain to head Mississippi prisons, after Cain retired under questionable circumstances from the Louisiana system. If instead it is attorneys with whom Reeves is palsy-walsy who are feeding him his legal knowledge, then they are doing the same, allowing him to further make a jackass out of himself, although maybe their ignorance is at play as well. When the Governor of Mississippi acts ignorantly in the stances he publicly expresses, one consequence is that this serves to reinforce perceptions that the entire state and its populace is ignorant as well, otherwise why would such a goober be elected.

Although other reasons were given in the Star Herald’s editorial, Reeve’s has repeatedly said that his refusal to be transparent about nursing home information rests on his legal opinion that “the nursing home is the address of the people who reside there,” and that this address is private information which cannot be shared.  He thus claims it violates residents’ rights of privacy if the public is made aware that their address is infected with coronavirus. Laying aside whether an address is actually a private fact and just assuming it is, if the public has a legitimate concern in knowing that address, public disclosure would not be a violation of privacy.  Thus, every month I receive an email informing me of the residential address of any person moving into Kosciusko who is on the sexual predator registry.  In this case an across the board decision exists that the public has a legitimate concern in knowing these addresses. 

A number of legitimate public concerns exist for letting the public know which sites in their locale are afflicted with coronavirus infection.  There isn’t space here to enumerate and explain these.  Furthermore, releasing the names of nursing homes with outbreaks isn’t a request to release the names of residents themselves, or staff.  This is not the only instance in which Gov. Reeves has claimed that it would be damaging if the public were given too much information, and so he has withheld it.  An example is his total unwillingness initially to reveal or even approximate the number of available ICU beds and ventilators in the state.  Full information on this still hasn’t been forthcoming. His attitude towards the public’s desire and need to know has been over paternalistic in this regard, treating the public like children.  It also shows that government in the full sunshine is often an alien concept to him.

Regarding his declaration of the entire month of April as “Confederate Heritage Month,” Reeves just flat out lied to everyone.  The fact that no one challenged his lie for weeks was doubly appalling.  Obviously he couldn’t hear me when I yelled “liar” at my TV.  It took weeks before the Jackson Free Press finally tweeted that he had lied and answered falsely to the press and public.  During April, approximately 60% of those dying in Mississippi from COVID-19 were African-American.  When asked why he was so insensitive as to declare all of April as Confederate Heritage Month, Reeves simply lied like his political idol does and claimed that he was “just following Mississippi statutes.” No such statutes exist! Only the last Monday in April by statute is designated as “Confederate Memorial Day.”

On nationwide TV Reeves babbled about Mississippi’s good record fighting coronavirus without mentioning the tragic racial death disparities.  These disparities are a manifestation of long standing social, educational, and health care inequities in Mississippi, dating back to the days of Reeves’ cherished Confederate heritage and continuing to this day. A line of continuity can be drawn from the time of slavery to the point in 1967 when Robert F. Kennedy observed Kwashiorkor due to inadequate protein intake in Mississippi children.  From there the line can be extended into the present time of 2020, with the existence of food deserts, food insecurity, and inadequate or non-existent health care within black communities.  The consequence is that diabetes, hypertension, and stroke are now resulting in higher COVID-19 deaths among the black population--that’s the real Confederate Heritage. 

While traditionally governors of Mississippi have signed additional executive orders for the entire month, one recent year former Gov. Bryant instead declared a "Month of Unity.” Reeves could have acted similarly, especially in the midst of a pandemic harshly afflicting African-Americans.  This would have required, however, that he lay aside his frat boy desire to affiliate with devotees of the Confederacy who have tried and thus far failed to get Confederate Heritage Month written into Mississippi statutes.  The desire is to have an entire month in which it can be taught that the Civil War was due to northern aggression, not slavery, and thus is a “just cause," just as the Confederate soldier statue on the Kosciusko Courthouse Square still proclaims today.

What about Reeves saying “the government can’t shut down churches.” First, his choice of words was inflammatory in that it evoked the persecution and paranoia felt by many Christians in regards to government which in their view has already sought to oppress them by taking prayer out of public schools.  Reeves implied that while the government might have total or absolute power to “shut down” everything else, it could not do that to churches, at least not on his watch.  He chose to convey, of course appealing to his Christian base, that while other governors might illegally shut down churches, he himself would stand up as a stalwart Christian soldier defending religious liberty in his Christian Mississippi.  Reeves has never once even given a nod to any other religion than Christianity.

Reeves' stance on the illegality of shutting down churches was bull hockey, but it did create an effective straw dog he could shoot down and receive an accolade of amens for doing so. The issue was not “shut down” (invoking religious oppression) but rather that compliance by the churches with social distancing requirements was just as essential for public health as was compliance by other social and business organizations. Clusters of deaths and infections from choir practices and church gatherings quickly offered firm evidence that religious fervor doesn’t provide immunity, even if one wears a T-shirt proclaiming “Jesus is the Only Mask I Need” or “Jesus is My Vaccine.”  These sentiments are actually ones Reeves himself inspires with his repeated references to the “power of prayer”  in his Sunday, government office prayer meets and Bible sermons on YouTube.  While it is an unconscionable and condemnable response, in addition to being criminal, the burning of a Holly Springs, MS church last week was a reaction towards religious zealots claiming religious liberty in defiance of stay at home orders to protect public safety.

Reeves either didn’t know or intentionally concealed what informed legal opinions assert about “shutting down churches.” Ordering church compliance when public health actions need to be undertaken to control COVID-19 would not be an infringement on religious liberty, if required conditions are met. Those conditions are that all religious groups must be dealt with equally among themselves and dealt with equally in regards to how other social groups are treated.  Reeves could have accurately conveyed to the public that “yes,” both the federal and state government could legally, if they chose, require that churches comply with restrictions necessary for public health and safety.  He might have followed that with a statement that personally he would prefer to not do that, if churches voluntarily would be 100% or so compliant. He never should have said that “government can’t shut down churches” because it certainly can. 

Other than the immediate transgression in accuracy and integrity, what is the problem with these three instances by Reeves, the withholding of needed information from the public,  lying about the laws or statutes of Mississippi, and conveying the false impression to churches that their freedom from government orders is absolute and inviolable.  A major problem is that Dr. Richard Bright might be right.  He is the infectious disease expert fired by Trump for being too outspoken about medical facts.  Regarding COVID-19, Bright predicts that “without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in history.” Stay at Home may need even firmer implementation, with no exclusions. Regardless of whether a dark winter unfolds or not though, the public needs transparency and requires truthfulness from the government at all times.  The public also needs to know, without it precipitating a constitutional rights hissy fit,  that if need be, if a dark winter dictates, churches indeed can be told to comply with orders necessary for public health and safety.  Unrestrained freedom is not what the founders meant by “liberty.”  Liberty is the rightful exercise of freedom. Say amen to that! 

Beverly E. Johnson

Kosciusko, MS