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Covid deaths are highest in Mississippi but Gov. Tate Reeves does nothing

What do Mississippians fear more: a deadly virus or a federal government promoting vaccinations?
Image: Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves at the Governor's Mansion in Jackson on June 30, 2020.
Despite having the country's highest Covid-19 death rate, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has attacked President Joe Biden's vaccination efforts as tyrannical.Rogelio V. Solis / AFP via Getty Images file

Though he’s the fifth post-Reconstruction Republican to lead Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves is the first governor of either party to have been born (as I was) in the newness of the state’s post-civil rights era.

But despite his status as one of the South’s (and one of the country’s) youngest governors, Reeves is tearing the very first page out of the playbook drafted by old Southern Democrats and today's Southern Republicans: When your people are suffering unnecessarily, rile them with a sermon about the federal government’s evil.

When your people are suffering unnecessarily, rile them with a sermon about the federal government’s evil.

Mississippi has proved to be as fertile ground for the novel coronavirus as its black Delta soil has been for cotton. But the same state that mounted an aggressive response when the boll weevil threatened to chew through its cash crop is now standing idly by as Covid-19 tears through its population. Meanwhile, its governor calls it tyrannical that President Joe Biden is aggressively push for lifesaving vaccines.

“If you look back through history, every single time tyrants have tried to place an emphasis on their individuals in their country, they’ve always said, ‘Oh, I’m doing it because it’s in the best interest of our citizens,’” Reeves told a Jackson television station. “If you look back in history, this is nothing but a tyrannical-type move by the president.”

An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll from 2019 found that a full quarter of Mississippians “almost never” trust the federal government to do what’s right. That’s not surprising given that so many white Mississippians — largely because of the federal government’s enforcement of civil rights laws — have been raised to see the federal government as a threat. The pervasive anti-Washington animus in Mississippi means Reeves’ decision to dial up the demagoguery will likely extend his political life — even as it cuts short the actual lives of Mississippians. The state leads the nation in Covid-19 deaths per capita; if it were its own country, it would have one of the world’s worst death rates.

Biden, who leads a country where Covid-19 has killed 1 in every 500 residents, has responded with a muscular policy that requires businesses of a certain size to mandate vaccines or regular Covid-19 tests for their employees. Reeves, who leads a state where the same disease has killed about 1 of every 320 Mississippians, is responding with empty expressions about how tore up he is that so many have died on his watch.

“Over 9,000 Mississippians have passed away with Covid, and every single one of them breaks my heart,” Reeves told CNN’s Jake Tapper during a Sept. 19 segment. The August death of 13-year-old M’Kayla Robinson, whose school started the year without a mask mandate after Reeves left the decision to individual school district, broke his heart so much that even as he claimed he was praying for her family and all Mississippians who're suffering, he referred to her only as “the young kid in Smith County.”

“You can pray until you faint,” Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”

A full quarter of Mississippians “almost never” trust the federal government to do what’s right.

Yet there Reeves sits: not only not doing anything but also refusing to consider doing anything.

Tapper appeared to have only one goal during his interview with Reeves: to get him to say Mississippi’s disproportionate death toll requires some action from the state.

But Reeves said that “the question here is not about what we do in Mississippi. It's what this president is trying to impose upon the American worker.” He called Biden’s policy “an attack by the president on hardworking Americans and hardworking Mississippians.”

As Tapper kept asking if he or Mississippi’s lawmakers would do anything, Reeves said, “In Mississippi, our Legislature is a part-time Legislature. … Sometimes I wonder if in America, if our Congress was part-time, we wouldn't be in a better position.”

“Better position than what?” Tapper asked.

Reeves: “Mississippi and where we are with the virus.”

Tapper: “Your state is second worst, second worst in the world.”

People unfamiliar with Mississippi or the South may have watched that exchange and believed Reeves made a poor showing. They may have laughed at his assertion that the U.S. should be looking to Mississippi for guidance and that counting the dead is the wrong way to judge the state’s response to the pandemic.

But I watched with the disgust of someone who knows that Reeves’ appearance won’t hurt his standing with the state’s conservatives and that it is more likely to bolster it. I watched with anger and with a sick feeling in my stomach that Reeves’ policy of standing back and impugning the feds imperils the lives of people I love.

Is this what youthful leadership is going to bring to the South?

Is this what youthful leadership is going to bring to the South? The same state-vs.-feds nonsense that has never paid dividends for anybody but those politicians? Is it just going to be more of the same cynical orations that praise backward thinking and vilify progress as oppression?

Apparently. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is leading the South in anti-government antipathy, and he’s four years younger than Reeves.

Attacking the feds may be good politics, but what counts as good politics in Mississippi also counts as good business for the undertakers. Residents are falling down dead around Reeves, and all he will promise is to feel sad.