It has been six months since Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus on March 14 – and there is no end in sight. When I reflect on how this time has passed, I become more and more convinced that we must stop accepting the bare minimum from the government as our progress, health and civil liberties decline. Our basic rights, as Americans and as human beings, depend on it.
This summer, state lawmakers awarded over $66 million in grants to rural, less affluent areas with few or no high-speed internet options in response to COVID-19. Before this, Mississippi had some of the most limited coverage and the slowest speeds of other states in the US.
Internet access is a prerequisite for participating in a digital society, economic development and simply connecting with loved ones — especially those we are unable to see because of the pandemic. Had it not been for COVID-19 forcing the majority of our lives to go online, would Mississippi have ever made this investment in such a basic good? It should not have taken a global pandemic for Mississippi to catch up to the rest of the country.
On April 3, the CDC recommended that face masks be worn in public, but it wasn’t until four months later in August that Reeves instated a mask mandate in Mississippi. Instead of acting upon urgent health guidelines, Reeves spent the week after the CDC update deeming abortion an unessential medical procedure, lumping this time-sensitive procedure together with operations like wisdom teeth removal and cosmetic surgery.
Rather than being ahead of the curve in terms of public health, the governor was more interested in forcing women to have unwanted pregnancies during a global pandemic. His urgency finally picked up when the most sacred institution in the state, football, was at stake. The final element that forced Mississippi to take the pandemic seriously was not its citizens’ lives, but college football.
Since implementing the universal mask mandate, Mississippi’s seven day COVID-19 case average has dropped to below 500 for the first time in nearly three months, according to Reeves. How many of the 1,750+ lives lost before the mask mandate could have been saved had he implemented this mandate months ago?
What could change Mississippi’s course for the better would be a change in leadership, but the pandemic has even taken away opportunities for that. We are less than two months away from perhaps the most significant national election of my lifetime. At least 27 states plus the District of Columbia have made changes to make it easier to vote during the pandemic.
As it stands, only Mississippians with underlying health conditions may vote absentee because of public health concerns. During normal times, we are one of only 16 states that require an excuse to vote early. Now, we are one of only six states that require a reason aside from COVID.
I mentioned earlier that we are expanding internet access — if only we could use this expanded internet access to register to vote online like 40 other states. Our health, peace of mind and ability to safely participate in democracy is a non-negotiable for all citizens.
We should not have to try to work around the government to achieve basics such as internet access, abortion access, public safety or the right to vote. These are the building blocks for the rest of what we deserve in non-pandemic times: infrastructure for the 21st century, affordable and accessible healthcare for all, voting rights for all (yes, even those who were formerly incarcerated) and a government that actually cares about the wellbeing of its people.
Ainsley Ash is a senior public policy leadership major from Meridian, Mississippi.