In the unforgiving light of the pandemic

Michele Johnson, Executive Director of the Tennessee Justice Center
Michele Johnson, Executive Director of the Tennessee Justice Center

As an implacable force of nature that is utterly immune to political spin and ideological cant, the coronavirus is shining a harsh light on Tennessee. The pandemic highlights our collective vulnerabilities and, especially, the folly of a politics guided by ideology rather than facts. With the stern authority of reality and the deadly seriousness of a lethal disease, COVID-19 is delivering a somber lesson to our nation, and nowhere more so than in Tennessee. 

In recent years, state political leaders have increasingly demanded strict adherence to a zealous form of conservatism. It isn’t the traditional, pragmatic conservatism of Lamar Alexander, Howard Baker or Bill Haslam. Instead, under the mislabeled banner of “conservatism,” elected officials have been pushing radical notions like abolishing Medicaid, punishing children unable to pay for their school lunches, and taking away food assistance from poor families already assailed by hunger. At the same time, state elected officials have rolled back estate taxes and the Hall income tax, making what was already the most regressive tax structure of any state even more regressive. 

Given the reluctance to raise and spend state taxes, there has long been a bipartisan consensus that the state should make use of all available federal funds that can benefit Tennesseans. Now state leaders use their authority to deny constituents federal benefits. The state hires doctors to wrongly deny disabled workers’ claims for Social Security benefits. State leaders have made Tennessee an outlier by refusing to spend federal subsistence and child care funds meant for Tennessee’s poorest children. With a combination of red tape and bureaucratic bungling, state officials have stripped more than 200,000 children of health coverage, increasing the number of our kids who are uninsured, even as the national rate has declined. 

Added to this has been a relentless series of extreme measures to stoke the culture wars. These include anti-LGBTQ legislation, declaring the Bible the state book, guaranteeing the right to carry guns in bars and parks, barring refugee resettlement in the state, and punishing cities that work to remove Confederate monuments.  

The common strand unifying these diverse policies and political gambits has been an aggressive effort to divide Tennesseans by wealth, race, political affiliation and religious belief. The same political leaders pushing division and discord have been indifferent, if not actively hostile, to their constituents’ most compelling and urgent needs. 

These policies have deepened the state’s inequities. Tennessee now ranks among the states with the highest rates of wealth inequality and income inequality. Tennessee has one of the 10 wealthiest counties (Williamson) in the U.S. and one of the nation’s highest concentrations of extreme poverty (Memphis). Nearly one in four Tennessee children is growing up in poverty.

Nearly one in four children in Tennessee is growing up in poverty. Click To Tweet

And now the pandemic is exposing not just the injustice but the folly of our state’s drift into a politics of division and callous indifference. We are finding that those of us who are privileged need low wage workers to stay healthy so they can do all of those necessary tasks on which our comfort and even safety depend. 

Expelling immigrants, or driving them into hiding, empties food processing plants. Refusing Medicaid coverage to janitors makes them vulnerable to the coronavirus when we are counting on them to sanitize the health facilities and public spaces we have to visit. 

Hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who are losing their health insurance as they become unemployed must face a lethal pandemic without coverage, because of our state’s cruel refusal to expand Medicaid. State politicians have paid lip service to the value of rural communities, while blocking access to federal Medicaid funds that would enable their hospitals to survive. With the spread of COVID-19, the resulting rural health crisis has become existential. 

In these dark days we are inspired by the countless Tennesseans, from doctors and nurses to sanitation workers and grocery clerks, who meet Albert Camus’ definition of heroism: ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency. They are putting themselves and their families at risk to serve our communities, without distinction of class, race, religion or political party. The contrast to the self-serving cynicism of state politicians is stark.

Will state officials be moved by these heroes’ example to devote themselves to the welfare of the whole state, to bringing us together rather than driving us apart? Can they summon the courage to re-examine their ideological positions in light of the urgent, obvious needs of the public? Will we all learn the message of the pandemic, that our health and security are affected by our neighbors’ health and security? Will enlightened self-interest and pragmatism guide the state through and beyond this crisis, with policies that promote the common good?

If we refuse to heed the lessons of our current crisis, we will only add to the pandemic’s tragic toll.