On day something in my third week of quarantine in Atlanta, Ga., I was lying in bed mildly digesting some headlines and news stories. On this day I was a little unassuming, because by now I’d turned off my email and news notifications. Each day I try to detach a little bit more than the day before, and each day I fail. I am, after all, a writer and a reporter.
This day’s attempts to detach were met with resistance. I tried to focus on other projects and keep my news blinders on. For a couple weeks, the public was urging Gov. Brian Kemp to do the right thing and shut Georgia down to effectively slow the spread of COVID-19, which was already running rampant in our communities. Our city’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and DeKalb County CEO Mike Thurmond also dragged on their shelter in place mandates, despite being in more densely populated areas and having the power to do otherwise. I felt I’d done my part for our outlet’s coverage for the time being and couldn’t bear to watch our officials continue to drag. I also couldn’t bear to witness the effective execution of poor and rural communities in Georgia that would inevitably follow.
But through a couple texts and email newsletters, news arrived. Friends texted me exclaiming, “Can you believe this?!” My first thought was, Whatever it is, probably. I braced myself, and into the coronavirus news vortex I went.
The big local news hit of the day: our governor announced on Wed., April 1, that he would be mandating a statewide stay-at-home order effective on Fri., April 3. This news had an initial “winning” ring to it. But as with almost everything in Georgia policy, that slight ring began to echo as a dull hum.
As the COVID-19 numbers continued to escalate in Georgia throughout March and our governments failed to act, business owners were placed in an impossible situation. The short window in which our government could have acted through the means of a statewide stay-at-home mandate would have made it possible for businesses to apply for insurance to help provide for their employees. Instead, business owners were placed in a position to choose between their employees’ immediate livelihood in the terms of bills and employment and the general public’s physical livelihood and well-being. The restaurant industry — which, according to my interview with Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer, was forecasted to bring in $25 billion in sales this year, equating to $200 million in revenue a month — will never look the same. And with those numbers, neither will Georgia’s economy, which Kemp and his constituents have been claiming to protect and sustain.
One of Kemp’s arguments for resisting stricter statewide guidelines was that less populated counties didn’t require the same measures that more densely populated areas did, as he stated in a virtual town hall on Thurs., March 26. This might sound okay at first, but think it through: don’t people travel between counties in Georgia? This rationale doesn’t lend much to explain Bottoms or Thurmond’s hold ups, either. Nonetheless, the stay-at-home orders and shelter in place mandates happened when they did — and still, it wasn’t enough.
All in all, Kemp’s announcement of the executive order on April 1 arrived as too little, too late. When I interviewed House Rep. Bee Nguyen on March 18, following Georgia’s last general assembly in which they convened to ratify Kemp’s State of Emergency, she clearly stated that because of “the number of people who have been exposed to the virus, there’s no way we’re going to be able to test everybody” in Georgia. Despite Gov. Kemp’s failure to impose a statewide stay-at-home mandate at that time, Nguyen added that the recommendation had been for people to stay at home “because of how highly contagious this virus is and because it’s asymptomatic.” (Spoiler alert: there’s that fancy word Kemp later claimed he’d never heard before!)
Kemp then quickly turned around and updated his stay-at-home order on Thurs., April 2, to reopen all our state’s beaches, including Tybee Island, which had been closed since March 20 and against Mayor Shirley Sessions’ wishes. Even after suddenly acquiring the knowledge of how dangerous the virus is, Gov. Kemp immediately persisted to go against strict guidelines to protect Georgians’ health and safety.
Meanwhile, the Beltline, Atlanta’s most populated outdoor trail and walkway, remains open with little precautionary measures, as shown in pictures from local photographer and photojournalist Ryan Vizzions on his official Instagram page. Mayor Bottoms tweeted a picture from the Beltline the same evening after both she and Kemp announced their executive orders, stating, “Thank you for listening Atlanta. This is a picture from the @AtlantaBeltLine taken this evening.” Three days later, the Beltline and its people were back in full swing — kids playing together in the park, people walking less than six feet away from each other, and folks eating and drinking together on patios.
What kind of April Fool’s joke is this?
As bewildering as it all seems, none of it arrives as a shock for myself and others who are accustomed to this type of behavior from Georgia’s current governor and former Secretary of State. Naturally, I assumed the direct messages of confusion and frustration I was receiving were aimed at the general nature of our state and city’s leadership. What we have here is the same old Kemp stuff: putting dollars over human lives — particularly the lives of people of color in our rural communities — while mirroring whatever President Donald Trump is doing.
Kemp’s announcement arrived the day after Trump delivered a press briefing in which he stated we would all be expected to adhere to social distancing guidelines for the month of April, and called on every member of our communities to do their “patriotic duty” to make sure that happens. In a matter of 24 hours, we went from, “We’re gonna re-open on Easter Sunday!” to “We’re closed for the whole month! (Actually, probably longer.)”
Later on that Thursday evening (thank God for timestamps), I received a text from my uncle in Denver saying, “Jesus, your governor is a fucking idiot.” Then I realized the story that was actually circulating the mainstream national news cycle. Gov. Kemp was finally making national headlines, but not in a way that served him justice.
MSNBC touted, “Georgia governor admits he just learned asymptomatic people can spread COVID-19” and “Despite the Governor’s mansion being 20 minutes away from the CDC, Gov. Brian Kemp claims he just learned that people without symptoms can still spread the coronavirus.” The Hill reported, “Georgia governor says he didn’t know asymptomatic people could spread the virus.” And, finally, the great Young Turks with their “GOP’s Brian Kemp: the dumbest governor?”
My roommate and I began our quarantine on Sun., March 15 — the same day I learned the coronavirus can be asymptomatic and carriers could be passing the virus to others without realizing it. Yes, I’ve since learned that Dr. Anthony Fauci of the CDC stated on Jan. 31 that the infectious disease is, in fact, asymptomatic. Frankly, in the midst of Super Tuesdays I and II and other debauchery in our national election, it’s likely I missed that news alert. I will openly chalk this up to ignorance over selfishness and stupidity, in my case. This is another part of the problem: the fact that we can all be on opposite pages and on various points of the spectrum during a pandemic that’s connecting and threatening all of us. For that, I would have to yield to writers such as Marshall McLuhan, Alan Watts, Karl Marx, et al.
Now, about those headlining stories. I’m sure the fact we are in the South has something to do with this narrative, to an extent. The fact that we are home to the CDC, the beacon of resources and information about COVID-19 and public safety, is the nasty punchline. I get it. “What an idiot governor! The South is so stupid! The CDC is literally right there!” It’s easy to pick up on, it’s easy to poke fun at, and it’s good for ratings. But what about the other possibility of what’s going on here? The one we really need to be paying attention to for the sake of actually making progress? The one that can be easily identified as a public relations tactic, or if you rather, manipulation.
Think about it: what’s an easier PR move? Being an incompetent idiot? Or a racist liar? Or at this point, a murderer? Consider these options, choose the lesser evil, and now, spin it! Spin, spin, spin!
That’s all it is, folks. It’s all spin.
To be clear, the fact that we are currently seeing the South die right before our eyes has nothing to do with idiocy; it’s about policy. Policies are deliberate actions that result from thorough consideration, such as when we saw eight states pass new abortion bans in spring 2019. There were concrete reasons why the abortion bans passed where they did and when they did; and we should be mindful of this when considering these politicians’ decisions and actions during the coronavirus pandemic.
When considering the GOP and its policies, no matter how “idiotic” and “backwards” they might seem, it is a mistake to not give credit where credit is due. The GOP generally operates in a long con fashion; these plots and strategies are well-thought out, deliberate, and strategic. The failures of the Democrats for the past four years ultimately lie in their reactionary natures and belittling the GOP and its constituents for the wrong reasons. It’s not idiocy at hand; it’s plain institutionalized racism and systemic discrimination — which is what it’s always been. In this sense, it’s not backwards at all in the context of our nation’s history.
Now, I don’t really know shit about COVID-19. At least not more than the next person who is alive, breathing, and paying some minimal amount of attention to what’s going on in the world. Although I might present myself otherwise, I have no idea how our systems should address this, outside of putting public health and safety before the economy, not after. I don’t know how to run a business during a global pandemic. I can hardly render any major solutions for what lies ahead. I also don’t know everything about other states’ governors and the thoughts behind their actions.
I do, however, know a bit about Gov. Kemp.
I know the man who is claiming ignorance to the asymptomatic nature of COVID-19 is the same man who refused in-depth election security from the federal government in 2018 to protect Georgia’s voting systems after they’d proven to be vulnerable. I know the man who is now responsible for the unnecessary deaths of Georgians is the same man who launched and weaponized voter fraud investigations into voter protection groups to suppress voters. I know the man who is currently arm wrestling with Tybee’s mayor to keep Georgia’s beaches open is the same man who has gaslighted and ignored voters in their testaments of voter suppression — and has even reprimanded them, as in the case of the Quitman 10+2. I know the man who, despite the statewide stay-at-home order, is still trying to keep things as “business as usual” as much as possible is the same man who adamantly worked to have the erroneous and discriminatory exact match policy become implemented in Georgia. The level of this man’s persistence is relatively astonishing; the exact match policy was enacted in Georgia even after Kemp was sued and after the policy initially failed pre-clearance with the U.S. Department of Justice and was stricken down in other courts.
Knowing the things many of us do about Kemp’s modus operandus, not a single bit of this arrives as a shock. (Although, I do continue to say “wow” as my heart breaks more every day as more Georgians continue to die at the hands of this man’s actions and “leadership.”) From this perspective, one could surmise that he’s not an idiot, but instead, a liar. And a racist one, at that.
But I will say, if I didn’t know any better, I might say something like, “Aw, he’s trying.”
In response to a reporter’s question following the announcement of his statewide executive order, Kemp said, “Finding out that this virus is now transmitting before people see signs, so what we’ve been telling people from directives from the CDC for weeks now that if you start feeling bad, stay home … those individuals could’ve been infecting people before they ever felt bad. But we didn’t know that until the last 24 hours. And as Dr. [Kathleen] Toomey told me, this is a game changer for us.”
News flash: he lied.
Referring back to the governor’s virtual town hall hosted via 11 Alive on Thurs., March 26: watch at 1:15:00 to hear the anchor ask Georgia Dept. of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Toomey a question acknowledging the fact that those who are asymptomatic can spread the virus. Continue to watch and see that Dr. Toomey did not blink an eye or refute that notion, and responded thoughtfully to his question. Additionally, Dr. Toomey also stated that they were consciously aware that symptoms of COVID-19 didn’t show for about two weeks, therefore contradicting Kemp’s statement about “finding out” the virus is transmitting before people see signs.
Dr. Toomey also explained that Georgia had a chance to “mitigate this in a way that perhaps [New York] didn’t.” She also mentions one of their key partners, the Georgia Hospital Association, which has the CDC and its guidelines linked on its official website. It is alarming to think that Kemp would be stupid enough — or egotistical enough — to simply not hear that.
Do I believe Trump is incompetent? Absolutely. Personally, I still can’t yield the man any intellectual credit behind his actions. Some individuals have even speculated that Trump is on the spectrum and I call extreme narcissistic personality disorder. Do I believe Kemp should be attributed the same level of incompetence to explain away his “missteps” and wrongdoings? Absolutely not. Because they weren’t missteps at all — they were deliberate and right in line with his behavioral patterns. Claiming ignorance is simply the easiest way out.
Trump may be that dense and incompetent, but Kemp is not. I don’t relish in this fact, because the flip side of the idiot coin is something far worse. It’s pure evil.
It is no surprise that Gov. Kemp has failed this state’s people and has left certain populations literally to die. When I say “certain populations,” let’s be clear I mean poor people and people of color. It’s the same counties and communities that have fallen under Kemp and his office’s attacks for years. But to serve to the national news’ most recent memory, we should all reflect on what really happened in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election between then-Secretary of State Kemp and former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
Abrams began trending online after Kemp claimed to be unaware of the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19, with many recalling the results of what was a stolen election with yearning thoughts of what could have been and how many lives would have been spared. Since Kemp has claimed the Governor’s Mansion, our state has seen the passing of HB 481 aka “The Heartbeat Bill,” over $80 million budget cuts in our health care systems, slashes to our public defenders’ budget, and now, all of this.
Every piece of Georgia’s story has led us to where we are today, now with one of the highest death tolls of coronavirus in the U.S. (The numbers are changing every hour.) Not a single factor is separate from the whole picture; they’re all precipitating factors. As with everything else that goes wrong in this nation, beneath it all lies the heavy undercurrent of voter suppression.
Georgia’s story is a traumatic one, with people of color regularly denied their fundamental right to vote through legalized state suppression tactics such as exact match, voter purges, and polling location closures. I’ve only heard a handful of the countless stories from friends and acquaintances on the frontlines of the fight for voter protection, namely of the Abrams-founded nonprofit Fair Fight Action. It is important to remember that while this article focuses on Georgia, it is intended to serve as a representative of the whole.
While “voter suppression” may not be a heavyweight in terms of what grabs our media’s attention today (let’s not forget they now have to compete with Trump’s press briefing ratings, which apparently top that of “The Bachelor” and Monday Night Football), that is bound to change. We are likely to see the words “voter suppression” turn up more and more as we near Election Day and we see more and more cases of voter suppression occur in real time. Take what we recently saw happen in Texas, for example, with voters waiting excruciatingly long lines to cast a ballot.
Our news section delved into this at length in our second print issue that was released in September 2019, and it’s been maddening to see the words “voter suppression” come up so little during our current election year. Now, it is my hope that voter suppression is treated more seriously as it becomes associated with the ongoing pandemic’s onslaught in Southern states and we begin to see a correlation between death and policy. Because as this unfolds, we will see how voter suppression leads to policies that lead to death.
Here’s the simple equation: lawmakers hold the keys to policies which lead to funding which lead to resources which provide for the maintenance of human lives. Because of voter suppression and how it paved the way for Kemp’s victory to the Governor’s Mansion in 2018, 1.4 million Georgians were without health insurance as of Sept. 2019, ranking third worst in the entire country. And that’s before Kemp announced his budget cuts to Medicaid in January.
Minority communities’ outcries are regularly ignored or silenced in Georgia, even within Atlanta’s perimeters. Mayor Bottoms has ignored the cries from displaced communities for months about the ongoing adverse effects of the city’s relentless gentrification. Fulton County holds the crown of one of the highest number of eviction rates in the country, with about 800 tenants receiving an eviction notice every week. Forgive our lack of praise when we saw Mayor Bottoms’ half measures with a temporary halting of evictions, doing nothing to protect tenants and renters from incurring more debt, or leaving the Beltline open to appease developers and their businesses at the expense of Georgian lives and those fighting on the frontlines in our medical systems.
The problems we are seeing now were apparent in Georgia before COVID-19 arrived, particularly in our state’s rural counties that our metropolitan areas and mainstream news are quick to forget about, or “sweep under the rug,” when it’s not convenient to draw on during an election cycle. Additionally, many of these communities are known by the U.S. Census Bureau as “hard to count” areas. It’s not that individuals are inherently hard to count, but rather, we operate under a system that is built to really only count one type of person.
We see the results of regularly utilized practices of gerrymandering, redlining, and voter suppression in poorer, rural counties. Take Randolph County, for example, whose nearest hospital is a 30-minute drive away and a majority of its residents don’t own a vehicle. Or in Clay County, which had to close one of its public schools due to lack of funding. Or in Stewart County, where a public library was closed due to black mold and a lack of funding to clean it. Stewart County is also home to one of our state’s detention centers, which has a capacity for 1,752 inmates, according to CivicCore’s official website. Needless to say, a profit is being made there, but it’s not going to benefit the communities.
It’s not a coincidence that the hardest hit area in Georgia is House District 151, home to Randolph County, which has been a unique place for Kemp’s voter suppression efforts over the years. Within HD 151 lies Albany, Ga., which holds the second-highest number of coronavirus-related deaths per capita in the world.
With all of this in mind, it is imperative that both consumers and news outlets look beyond the veil when we discuss the actions and claims presented by GOP governors, especially those in the South, and particularly those of Gov. Kemp. It is a mistake to paint a picture of mere ignorance and idiocy when there is something greater at hand. It’s time to pause, dig deep, and take a look at the bigger picture. Gov. Kemp and the GOP know exactly what they’re doing — and they must be stopped. But making fun, calling them idiots, and helping them spin their own version of the story won’t do us any favors now.