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Gov. Mike Parson's Pathetic Non-Response to Crisis Exposes Cultural Divide

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On March 19, fully eight days after the World Health Organization issued its official declaration that COVID-19 was a global pandemic, Missouri Governor Mike Parson uttered these astonishing words:

“I don’t think there is a doomsday for the state of Missouri or the United States over COVID-19,” Parson told the Kansas City Star. “It’s something we have to be concerned with. But to try to put that into a fear category is wrong. This is like viruses we’ve dealt with before.

“It’s going to take us some time to be able to treat that virus and come up with a vaccine at some point,” Parson said. “But if people will follow simple instructions, they can sure slow the process down of COVID-19.”

Alrighty then.

Parson had been asked for a response to the imbecilic words spat upon the floor of the Missouri House by Rep. Kathryn Swan (R-Cape Girardeau) as part of her party’s opposition to one Democratic measure after another to rush more help to health care workers.

“I’ve sat here for a couple of hours and I’ve grown a little frustrated, a little weary of the doomsday picture that is being painted,” Swan said. “We all know the drill: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t be around people who are ill, if you are ill, contact your physician, if you need to go to the hospital, go to the hospital. I think we could recite those in our sleep at this point.” But that, she babbled on, is enough.

What’s actually remarkable about this abject stupidity is that it wasn’t just your everyday abject stupidity from a state legislator. Swan is a freaking nurse. Just imagine her outrage when, eight days later, the Missouri Nurses Association demanded, to no avail, that Parson initiate a statewide stay-at-home order.

From the perspective of the St. Louis metropolitan area’s “fear category,” it’s obvious that Parson would be better suited serving as Polk County sheriff, as he once did, rather than as governor of a state of 6 million people, as he now does. He just doesn’t get it.

From all accounts, Parson is a fine gentleman with the best of intentions. But while his roots as a county sheriff are hardly disqualifying, it is not so comforting that he seems a product of the Homer Simpson School of Advanced Medicine in this crisis.

Unlike most fellow governors, Parson has acted like a man who truly believes “this is like viruses we’ve dealt with before.” Maybe he was referring to the Spanish flu of 1918, in which St. Louis was noted for its exceptionally smart response under the leadership of the great Max Starkloff. Maybe not.

Among his non-actions, Parson has not closed the schools (he waited until they all did it themselves), not issued a state-at-home order (not even close), not demanded that the legislature act urgently to get assistance funds to desperate health care professionals (still hasn’t happened) and not required non-essential business to close statewide (not state’s role).

Parson’s most recent non-action was to announce last Friday that he had “mobilized” the National Guard, albeit with no specific deployment, a gift-for-the-obvious step that hardly reflected the somber tone with which the governor attempted to impersonate a leader. At the same news conference, the governor was asked when his government might get around to releasing the paltry $40 million ($33 million of it in pass-through federal dollars) appropriated on March 19 by the state House of Representatives.

No rush. Even though Parson can only disperse the funds after the Missouri Senate approves the House’s appropriation, he seemed fine with waiting until the senators mosey back to the state capitol sometime this week. He added — without intending irony — that the “drop dead” date to act was April 24.

I don’t know if anyone else in the media noticed the unintentional pun. I did.

True to its well-deserved reputation as the upper berth of a legislative clown car, the Senate couldn’t be troubled to interrupt its spring break to return to Jefferson City and rush the aid to the governor. For the House’s part, even as it sprinkled an insultingly small $7 million in state crumbs for our health care heroes, this overwhelmingly Republican chamber refused to trust the governor of its own party with added emergency-funding appropriation authority.

As I write this on Sunday, March 29, Missouri has just experienced a 600 percent increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in a week, tops in the nation, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The state’s total known cases is 902, with twelve dead. It will be higher when you read it. What doesn’t get enough attention is that at least two-thirds of that total comes from St. Louis and Kansas City. The cities of Columbia and Springfield account for most of the rest.

If you visit the amazing COVID-19 world map updated daily online by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, you can zoom in and see that large parts of rural Missouri have either no confirmed cases, or just one. Herein lies a fundamental problem. Though the coronavirus knows no physical borders nor political affiliations nor timelines, it has generally been felt most intensely — and spread most rapidly — in places with greater population density.

That’s why, to the fault of no one, Americans are sensitized differently to the coronavirus based upon where they live. Tragically, in a state like Missouri, that means people start breaking apart along rural-versus-urban lines like they do on issues such as guns and puppy mills and Medicaid expansion. We don’t have time for such nonsense now.

Making matters worse, testing for the virus is almost nonexistent in rural communities, even more so than under-tested urban areas. It’s scandalously lagging behind everywhere in the U.S. thanks to the incompetency and personal issues of the narcissist-in-chief. And people in places like Rep. Swan’s Cape Girardeau County just don’t sense trouble.

On March 26, there were three cases in Cape Girardeau. The next day there were five. That doesn’t sound like much in a county of 78,000 people. But if it keeps growing by half or two-thirds every day, like it has too many places, come back in a few weeks and see what the math has wrought. Let’s hope it doesn’t. If it does, we might come together as a state — too little and too late — if for no other reason than that many rural folks will come to St. Louis seeking the best in medical care.

As for Parson, a man whose sincerity is not in doubt, if he checks back home with the folks in Polk County, where he was sheriff, or in Hickory County, where he grew up on a farm, they’ll tell him there’s nothing to see here, no cases at all. Just like “viruses we’ve dealt with before.”

But in a state that produced Harry Truman, he of “the buck stops here” fame, the rest of us can’t afford to have Neanderthal man calmly observing that the buck hasn’t been carved yet into his own cave.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at rhartmann@sbcglobal.net or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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