Susan J. Demas: Some leaders have lost their humanity during COVID-19. We don’t need to follow them.

May 28, 2020 7:35 am

People start to arrive at a temporary homeless shelter set up in a parking lot at Cashman Center on March 28, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada was closed this week after a homeless man who used their services tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving about 500 people with no overnight shelter. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

We hit a ghastly, unthinkable milestone in the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, with more than 100,000 people losing their lives in our country. That’s a little more than the entire population of Flint, which knows something about brutal health crises.

About 1.7 million have been sickened in the United States, more than the populations of 11 states. Worldwide, an incomprehensible 5.7 million have contracted COVID-19 (roughly equivalent to the entire state of Wisconsin) and more than 356,000 have died (roughly the population of Honolulu).

Michigan has been one of the hardest-hit states. We have 55,608 cases, a little more than the number of residents in Dearborn Heights, the 22nd most populous city in our state. We’ve now slipped to No. 8 nationally, with Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois passing us in recent weeks.

But we are fourth in deaths with 5,334, with only New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts experiencing more loss. That’s like losing every resident of St. Clair.

Reporting on these numbers, as we do every day, is important. They are shocking and horrifying and it’s only been a few months. If we ever allow this to become normal, we will have lost our humanity.

So that’s why it’s even more critical to tell the stories of people we’ve lost and their families, those who have recovered and those who are struggling in myriad ways through these seemingly incomprehensible times. Many media have done an admirable job in this and I am proud that the Advance and our 14 sister outlets have contributed in some small way.

In a moving tribute that was frankly hard to read in one sitting, the New York Times over the weekend listed the names of everyone lost to the pandemic, trying to give us a small sense of who they were and what this all means.

We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to grieve as a state or as a nation. Part of that is because this disease is far from over, despite positive trends in Michigan and other states overall. Anyone who’s read even a little about the 1918 flu pandemic knows that a second wave this fall and winter could be even more devastating. Dealing with this much trauma for such a sustained period is soul-crushing and terrifying.

And so many of our support networks have been radically altered, not being able to see friends and family, go to religious services or seek out help in group therapy. We have no idea when things will truly get back to “normal” and most of us know that our very definition of that word is going to permanently change.

This is a once-in-a-century event that will forever scar and alter our world.

But while there have been wonderful acts of kindness, large and small, there hasn’t been a collective period of mourning or a hokey, but necessary, ethos that we’re all in this together. What would make things easier is having our leaders united to fight the pandemic and comfort the nation.

Sadly, that’s not possible when you have a president and his party fully invested in division and unmoved by destruction in the lives of people who don’t vote for them. Many Republicans have embraced rampant conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and palled around with activists fighting health measures armed with automatic rifles, swastikas and Confederate flags (GOP Sen. Dale Zorn even wore a mask in the design and Republican leadership did zilch).

How many times have you heard conservatives declare that coronavirus only impacts Democratic areas, African Americans, poor people and those with underlying health conditions, none of which is true? But if you believe that, then you don’t have to care — or at least, not as much. Then it becomes a problem for “them,” the less worthy, the less valuable.

And then you can be like Southwest Michigan GOP Sen. Kim LaSata and exasperatedly yell during a Michigan legislative panel on COVID-19, “I am not Detroit!”

It’s not a new sentiment, of course. It’s one that has defined Michigan for decades. But it is ugly and racist and callous and deserves more coverage than gossipy stories about the governor’s husband and his boat. I have been told so many times that reporting on social justice issues shows you have an agenda, although apparently mimicking the National Inquirer means you’re “objective.” (That says a lot about who runs media entities, by the way).

But I believe we are all Detroit. We are our brother’s keeper — in times of loss and triumph. That’s how we get through this.

I know the rules of columns like this. Much like family Thanksgiving dinners, you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion. And if we still had a president like Barack Obama, that would be a lot more possible during this tragedy.

At the basest level, Obama’s philosophy was that “we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America.” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra is exclusionary by design, similar to the Sarah Palin “Real America” dogwhistle that this country was made, at its core, for straight white men (who most importantly are rich, but you don’t want to alienate all the voters).

Obama was meant to lead this nation at a time of great upheaval; Trump is only interested in getting reelected, amassing power and dodging blame. Obama’s administration even left Trump a detailed guide to handling a pandemic and his team chucked it in the trash.

That’s one of the many reasons why Trump has mishandled COVID-19 and why there’s no reason why as many as 100,000 people should have died. He and Republicans spend more time mourning stock market volatility than those we’ve lost.

It’s sad and shameful and cannot be overlooked or explained away.

So Trump can blame Democratic governors all he wants — and some politicos and journalists will willingly play along — but it’s clear that most voters believe that the president is chiefly responsible for our nation’s health and well-being. He is — but he doesn’t care. And no matter how committed you are to the agenda that both sides have made the same mistakes and are equally craven, the facts don’t support the spin.

So we have to talk about politics while we mourn. We have to hold power to account. That’s the job.

That’s how we help our fraying country hold on to its humanity, even while some of our leaders have lost theirs.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more.