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South Dakota’s Dead and Dying

Sometimes I think it’d be nice to be perceived as infallible. Imagine being in a position where no one held you to your responsibilities, where you could do whatever you like without recourse.

I think that’s what it would be like to be Kristi Noem. The South Dakota governor is in the news (again) for a speech she delivered at CPAC, Comic Con for people who think John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive. In it, she condemned other Republican governors for not being more like her, a criticism the crowd ate the hell out of.

Nationally, conservatives love Kristi Noem, a woman whose most famous accomplishment is doing nothing. While governors and government officials nationwide scrambled to contain and react to the burgeoning pandemic, Noem took the brave approach of sitting back and doing shit all.

Business restrictions and mask mandates saved lives, but Noem’s “foot off the gas” angle made Twitter’s sunglassesed, low-angle driver’s seat conservatives horny as hell.

She sold it as practical libertarian conservatism, letting the people take responsibility for themselves. Of course, when the people, unable to understand the complexities of viruses and choosing to receive their information from Indivisible Eagle Patriot Cop Defender News on Facebook, prove totally unwilling to take on any responsibility in favor of fetishistically endangering others, Noem held fast: the plan would work.

It didn’t. South Dakotans suffered because of Noem’s commitment to inaction. Based on information from John Hopkins and Statista, South Dakota is ranked tenth in Covid deaths per capita nationwide.

Some might try to spin that stat positively. Several of those ahead of South Dakota are blue states, and even among red states, most local governments did something to mitigate the Covid disaster. So being one of the few to do nothing at all and still landing behind ten other states doesn’t sound like the worst possible outcome.

But the blue states in the top ten (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) all populate another top ten stat: population density. These are the states where people live the closest together, a distinction that makes them particularly vulnerable to the rapid spread of infectious disease.

South Dakota, meanwhile, is the nation’s fifth least dense state. Everyone’s ridiculously spread out. Restrictions in more urban areas were effective even with prohibitive conditions: a population living in dense apartment buildings working in dense offices and reliant on public transportation is hard to keep apart. In South Dakota, a stay-at-home policy would have kept people on average, I don’t know, one hundred miles away from their nearest neighbor?

So far I’ve only been entertaining the death count, which is critically important because these are people we’re never getting back. It’s imperative that we understand that political inaction led to the deaths of innocent people who by no means had to die. But it’s also not the only stat. In terms of pure infection numbers, South Dakota’s in third, behind only North Dakota (South Dakota but worse) and Rhode Island (very dense). In a way, it’s impressive they managed so many infections with comparatively few (but still a shitload of) deaths, but we should remember that Covid carries with it the potential for long-term side effects.

Even without the long-term effects, and ignoring for a moment the deaths we definitely shouldn’t ignore, every person hospitalized with the disease is a person likely now dealing with considerable hosptial debt after putting strain on an overworked medical system. The supposed benefit to Noem’s brand of inaction is an uninterrupted economy, but what value is the unmitigated success of a business when its employees might be paying off medical debt for the better part of a decade?

Kristi Noem’s pandemic plan was a dumb one born out of her own disinterest for active government. She did a bad job, but why should she do any different? The people, in-state and nationwide, love her. I mean, one might argue that saving the lives of innocent people is a benefit in and of itself, but Noem follows the Donald Trump model of government success: nothing matters more than making your fans cheer the loudest.

We voted Donald Trump out in November, but his legacy lives on in governors like Noem, those unafraid to undertake dangerous policies to beef up their anti-liberal street cred. Not long ago, Noem accepted a bribe from a Tennessee billionaire to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border to overexert the bounds of their authority in the summer sun. That decision drew criticism from the governor of Arkansas, a Republican who also sent troops to the border but noted that accepting private funds to direct military action sets a dangerous precedent. Maybe Amazon can donate a few million next time employees try to unionize.

I feel sometimes like I’m beating a dead horse with Kristi Noem. She’s so easy to criticize. Maybe you feel the same. But her stupid dumb idiot policies are popular among Republicans, and in the off chance her mentor doesn’t run in 2024, she’s increasingly being considered a top contender. We waited way too long to start taking Donald Trump seriously, and that was before his policies were killing people. With Noem, the evidence is on the table. Are we down to make the same mistake this time?

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