There’s no “nuance” in Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ dictionary, but “fear” is a word prominently displayed.
Sunday, Edwards issued another proclamation regarding the advance of the Wuhan coronavirus in Louisiana. This one now limits gatherings to ten and closed additional businesses, allowing open only grocery stores, pharmacies, medical facilities, factories, transportation hubs, and critical infrastructure, although a social distancing limit is asked to be observed. People also are advised not to leave homes unless to shop for groceries, seek medical supplies or care, or go to work if part of the businesses not closed or not involved with public interaction.
The announcement he made to accompany that highlighted the per capita incidence and rate of growth of cases in Louisiana. As of Sunday morning, the state had the third highest per capita infection rate of the states, trailing only the epicenter Washington and hard-hit New York. It also in its first 13 days since the initial reported infection had the most severe growth rate of any country or state, with a current trend well above the average. The change for Monday didn’t look pretty either, with a jump of 36 percent with about the same in tests given.
As bad as that looks, it masks an important underlying trend: the outbreak, to repeat, is largely a phenomenon of the New Orleans area. Of the 1,137 cases confirmed by Monday, Orleans, Jefferson, and the five parishes bordering them — Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, and St. Charles — have 919, or 81 percent of these. To put it in perspective, the state’s infection incidence is just under 1 in 4,000, but outside of this area, East Baton Rouge (about 1 in 10,000), and Caddo and Bossier Parishes (around 1 in 8,000) it’s just 1 in over 15,000. In Orleans, it’s a mind-boggling 1 in 690, which is slightly worse than New York City’s.
So, if anything, Edwards is lagging New Orleans Democrat Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who issued a similar order for her city more than a week ago. But whereas her directive was, given the scale of geography, surgical, his went about hitting the broad side of a barn.
A third of the state’s parishes have yet to report a case; about a half have zero or one. This will change for the worse, that Edwards says indicates a trend “basically the same” as Italy’s, which now has the world’s most deaths from the virus and the highest per capita incidence of any large country. But Louisiana isn’t Italy. Italy’s significantly older average population, universal health care system, and higher population density (four times that of Louisiana) make its residents more susceptible to the disease. However, in density New Orleans is like Italy — its density is twice that of the hard-hit Lombardy region.
Meanwhile, under the increasingly draconian measures, citizens are suffering economically. As a number of commentators have noted, in making policy decisions politicians have discounted the question whether the extremely minuscule chance that any random person could die from the coronavirus justifies locking down the economy. The longer these curfews continue, the fewer people work and earn income and their wealth declines and more businesses fail for good, with concomitant increases in social dysfunction up to and including increased suicide rates, creating problems ultimately the state will have to address.
But understanding this runs counter to politicians’ short-term perspective. The imperative of maintaining their political careers pushes them towards providing instant gratification to themselves and the governed and they tend to discount the actual value of the long term. They are afraid they’ll become known as the guy who let a pandemic flourish, not comprehending that the waving of their magic wands in an attempt to stop that could cause more citizen misery in the aggregate farther down the road.
Intensifying the clampdown for Orleans and Jefferson is entirely appropriate, and perhaps even for their rim parishes. At the best, elsewhere in the state it is hasty; at the worst, it can make the cure worse than the disease.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport. He has studied and written about Louisiana politics for more than a quarter of a century, and authors the blogs Louisiana Legislature Log and the award-winning Between the Lines. He can be reached at jeffsadowcolumn-HannaPub@yahoo.com.