Here’s why weekly newspapers are so important: They still do things like go out to the high school when the local congressman is there talking to students.
Big city (and even many small city) papers can’t be bothered with something so routine. And that’s how the Rappahannock News came to publish last week one of the more astonishing stories to enter the Virginia news ecosystem recently: Fifth District Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, urged the students to defy the rules on wearing masks.
“If nobody in Rappahannock complies, they can’t stop everyone,” the weekly newspaper in Rappahannock quoted Good as saying. “If I was y’all, I’d say none of y’all wear a mask. What are they gonna do? They’re still going to have school.”
Wonder what other rules Good would have the students defy? Don’t wear seat belts? Ignore the sign at the local convenience store that says “no shoes, no shirt, no service”? What about the speed limit sign outside the school?
Those are the “money quotes,” as they say, but the Rappahannock News story has even more incredible nuggets if you keep reading. Good himself refused to abide by the school’s mask rules, so school officials had to move his appearance to the football field. (I’m old enough to remember when Rappahannock was the only school in the old Skyline District not to field a football team, but I digress.) What other congressman shows up to speak to students at a school and refuses to abide by the rules?
The News went on to report: “Good’s speech to the students included misinformation about masks and vaccines, saying that President Joe Biden and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, both Democrats, are ‘lying to us about the effectiveness of masks.’ Good said there is no scientific evidence that proves the efficacy of masks, and that COVID-19 vaccines pose more of a health risk to teenagers than the virus itself.” As a reputable news organization, this weekly had the gumption to contradict the congressman: ‘”There is a consensus among the scientific community that universal masking does slow the spread of COVID-19.”
That wasn’t all. Good went on to disparage any college that doesn’t have a religious mission. The specific passage: “He also told the students that colleges and universities — outside of faith-based Christian schools — are ‘going to try and change what you believe’ because they are ‘dominated by the left.’” Who knew that, say, Lord Fairfax Community College was such a font of radicalism?
Let’s just leave that there and circle back to the congressman urging students to defy rules on masks. We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Good once called this a “fake pandemic” – no matter that just under 1,440 of his constituents have now died from the virus, according to the Virginia Department of Health. I say “just under” because a few counties are split between districts so it’s impossible to apportion the 149 deaths in Henry County or the 145 in Bedford County, but you’d think Good would be more sensitive to this since 133 of his neighbors in Campbell County have died from the virus. (The single biggest death toll in his district is in Danville, where 182 have died.)
If terrorists showed up and gunned down 1,440 or so people in the 5th District, what would be the response? I suspect people would be exercising their Second Amendment rights and packing some heat, right? Here we have microscopic terrorists and the response is that wearing a piece of cloth is somehow offensive? I don’t get it. Usually I like to think I can see both sides of an issue. If Democrats propose raising taxes and Republicans propose cutting them, I can understand the motives behind each – the two parties have different theories about how to build a more just and prosperous society. But I cannot fathom the anti-maskers (or the anti-vaxxers, either). I get that people don’t like being told what to do – nobody does. But is there some alternative theory about how to defeat the virus? Not that I’ve heard. The anti-maskers seem to me essentially to be surrenderists, or, at best, collaborationists – the viral equivalent of Vichy France. I don’t buy the “personal liberty” angle at all, because someone who’s not wearing a mask – and potentially spreading the virus – isn’t just endangering themselves, they’re endangering people around them, as well. If someone wants to smoke a pack of cigarettes, as long as I don’t have to breathe your second-hand toxins, that’s your business if you want to poison your body. But nobody has the right to make someone else sick, yet that seems exactly what the anti-maskers are advocating.
I could beat a pretty good rhetorical drum here, but fancy words seem out of order. Let’s just look at the math, because as far as I know, math still doesn’t care about anybody’s ideology.
The Daily Yonder, a website that covers rural issues, reported last week that virus infection rates have dropped for the third week in a row – nationally. In most of Southwest and Southside Virginia, however, rates were rising. That includes most of the localities in Good’s 5th District – even Rappahannock County, where Good spoke. In fact, the Rappahannock News reports that on the day Good spoke, 54 students and staff members at Rappahannock County High School were in quarantine either because they had tested positive or had been exposed to someone who had. The school has an enrollment of 304. So yes, the congressman went into a county where virus rates are high to begin with and rising even more and told students to ditch their masks. And this will help reverse those trends, how?
Of note: The lowest virus rates in the 5th District – and a place where infection rates are dropping – just happens to be Albemarle County, which is also the most highly vaccinated locality in the state. Coincidence?
It’s easy for us to lose track of just how much higher the virus rates in the United States are than the rest of the world. We usually think of American exceptionalism as a good thing, a noble thing, but here our American exceptionalism is really an embarrassment.
The cumulative virus rate in the United States to date is 13,416 cases per 100,000 people. To us that’s normal – or the new normal. But it’s not normal, not even for this pandemic. Just to the north of us, the rate in Canada is only 4,425 – about one-third ours. Why is Canada’s so low? Here are two countries with very similar cultures (well, except for Canada’s unusual love of hockey, poutine and butter tarts) yet very different virus rates. There seem to be two easy answers: Canadians seem much more willing to don masks and get vaccinated. (As of today, 79% of Canadians have had at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 66% for Americans.) Put another way, Canadians have a vaccination rate about the same as Albemarle County, but their infection rate is about half of the least-infected county in Virginia (Cumberland County).
In parts of Europe, the infection rate is lower still – in Norway, it’s just 3,658 per 100,000. In Finland, it’s 2,736. In Australia, it’s 561 per 100,000. In New Zealand, just 97. Now, New Zealand certainly benefits from being a small island nation. Australia, too, for that matter. But the point is, our virus rates are not the norm, they are an outlier. There are only a few places in the world with higher infection rates than ours. They include Montenegro, Serbia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. This is the company we’re keeping. It should not make us proud.
We’re an outlier in another way, too. The virus has become politicized here in a way that it hasn’t been in other countries. Let’s return again to Canada, because the comparison with our nearest neighbor is so stark. The premier of Ontario – the Canadian equivalent of a governor – is Doug Ford. He’s often likened to former President Donald Trump, a large man with a larger-than-life personality and distinctly conservative opinions, which he is not at all shy about sharing. However, the Conservative Party premier of Ontario has also presided over far stricter lockdowns than anything any of his American counterparts would dare contemplate – even though the virus rates there are so much lower. When there were protests about Ontario’s virus crackdown measures, Ford blasted the protesters as “a bunch of yahoos.” It’s a message, and a phrase, he’s repeated several times since.
“Have you ever walked through an ICU unit seeing someone struggling for their life on a ventilator and having their loved ones outside of a hospital?” he said. “Have you ever been to a long-term care facility when people are struggling and the PSW’s [personal service workers] are working their backs off? You guys want to go out there and act like a bunch of yahoos. I am being polite with yahoos. Guys, give your head a shake.” Toronto’s City News called this “an impassioned rant.” Meanwhile, here in Virginia, we have a congressman telling students to ignore the rules and take their masks off.
For the first week of October, the virus infection rate in Rappahannock County was 244 per 100,000. In Good’s home county of Campbell, it was running just under 308 per 100,000. In Halifax County, it’s just under 366 and in Danville it’s just under 390, the highest in the 5th District. Just to the west, the highest infection rate in Virginia is currently in Smyth County, where only about half the population is vaccinated and the infection rate in early October was nearly 804 per 100,000.
But in the United States overall, it’s now just 25 per 100,000. Meanwhile, in Canada it’s just eight per 100,000. And in Ford’s Ontario, where 77% of the population has been vaccinated and the conservative premier makes a point of wearing a mask and praising those who do, the rate on a weekly basis is running just three cases per 100,000, and trending sharply downward.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.