June 11: I stopped with the daily diary entries a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime the country has exploded in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd with protests — escalated into violence by police — and political and social turmoil unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime.
I didn’t stop the diary because that was starting, but it ended up being pretty good timing. No one ever really needs to read more navel gazing from a middle aged white man, but at the moment it’s especially unnecessary. As it was, my final entry referred to my lack of faith in my country in the context of its response to COVID-19. All of that goes double for its bones-deep racism and the unwillingness or inability of so many of my fellow Americans to own up to what we are as a people and a society and what we must do to make things better.
But as I also said in my final entry, I plan to write periodic updates to this diary as events warranted. An event has warranted it, so I’m popping back in again.
This afternoon Governor DeWine announced that Dr. Amy Acton has resigned as the Director of the Department of Health. He says he tried his hardest to get her to reconsider but that she was intent on stepping down and assuming a different role in the department. For her part Acton cited her need to “refocus” and to have a schedule that was more “sustainable” than the wake-up-at-4AM-every-day-and-fight-the-pandemic lifestyle which she had been living for the past few months.
As someone who has followed politics closely his entire life, and as someone who has worked a good bit in and around state government in Ohio as well, forgive me if I don’t take either DeWine or Acton at their word.
As I’ve noted elsewhere in this diary, DeWine’s early, proactive actions in response to the pandemic received rave reviews nationally. Those actions were all taken in close consultation with Acton. By virtue of having Acton by his side at his daily briefings — and by giving her all of the credit due to her for her expertise and counsel — DeWine was widely praised for eschewing politics and basing his often tough decisions on medical and scientific expertise. Acton was described by The New York Times as “not only the brains behind the state’s early, aggressive coronavirus response; but also its most effective messenger.” Donald Trump and the federal government may have thrown us to the wolves, but we were in good hands with DeWine and Acton.
At the end of April DeWine and Acton announced that a stepped reopening plan would eventually be implemented based on quantifiable metrics with respect to available testing, contact tracing, protective equipment availability, improvements with respect to infections, and capacity of hospital resources. DeWine and Acton made it clear that, contrary to the disingenuous argument of the “open everything now!” crowd, the point was not to wait for “zero infections” or “zero deaths.” The point was to have a situation in place in which people who were infected could know it and could isolate themselves in order not to infect others. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unreasonable ask. It was laudable prudence. I never felt great about what was going on with all of this and still don’t, but I felt like we would make it though somehow because the people in charge were trying hard to do the right thing.
Then, in the space of ten days, everything changed.
On May 7 DeWine announced the opening of bars and restaurants, barber shops, hair salons and other personal care businesses. Within days he announced the opening up of basically everything else. A tad over a month later, while the pandemic still rages, it’s only practicality, as opposed to the law, which is keeping the state from looking like it did in early March. And it’s not very far off from that early March look.
These changes did not come about because those metrics DeWine and Acton cited were met. No, things changed because Republicans in the Ohio Legislature revolted. They passed a bill seeking to limit Dr. Acton’s power. Underlying that action were increasingly reactionary responses to the state’s health orders by Republicans and increasing personal attacks on Dr. Acton, some of which compared Acton — who is Jewish — to Nazis. Things changed because DeWine saw the heat that the governors of Michigan and Wisconsin were receiving, up to and including armed militants taking over the capitol building. DeWine never said exactly why he decided to reopen everything, but it does not take a genius to conclude that his change of heart was a function of fear. Of political cowardice.
The price of that political cowardice can be counted in lives. How many we don’t yet know, but we’ll be able to count it pretty accurately one day assuming the data isn’t muddled or outright fudged. Assuming that those in a position to know and understand the big picture resist the urge to do what DeWine and seemingly everyone else in the state is doing: pretending that everything is back to normal. Pretending that if we act as if there is no pandemic then there is no pandemic.
An additional price of that cowardice now seems to be the career of Dr. Amy Acton. A woman who dedicated countless hours of her life trying to save the lives of Ohioans and who, in return, was compared to a Nazi and had her power threatened for doing so. A woman who was stabbed in the back by a cowardly governor who used her for good PR until the moment he lost the political will to care about COVID-19 at which point he simply changed course, leading people to believe she had lost his confidence.
Everyone may be saying nice and conciliatory things at the moment, but I can’t help but see Dr. Acton’s resignation as the inevitable result of a competent professional having her legs cut out from under her. Of her being left to take the heat and be made the villain by people who lack the will to do what is necessary to serve the public as they promised to do when they took office. Of people who seem hellbent on doing and saying all the worst things because they are, in every way that matters, the worst people:
That lawmaker is a doctor, by the way. A doctor who has far more power to direct Ohio’s response to COVID-19 than Dr. Acton now does.
It’s a disgrace. But it’s an oh-so-fitting disgrace at this particular time in history. It’s as if all that is dooming the nation is coming together in some grand convergence. As if we were all part of some sick improv group performing a Harold with pandemic, racism, and indifference as prompts shouted from the audience.