Opinion: Virus already has lessons for our state
COVID-19 has lessons for Kansas in handling crises. Citizens and policymakers should use this moment to reflect on how we can protect public health now and prepare for the next crisis to threaten Kansas.
First, let’s talk social trust. In surveys, Americans report little trust in government. Where diseases are concerned, Hollywood has given us the disaster movie narrative wherein the government bungles containment, leading to tyrannical doomsday measures. It’s little wonder that social media is full of conspiracies implicating government and corporations for “causing” the COVID-19 crisis.
Further, trust on coronavirus is increasingly partisan. In recent national polling, over 60% of Republicans — but just 30% of Democrats — call the COVID-19 threat “exaggerated.” Republicans trust President Donald Trump to handle coronavirus; Democrats don’t. Republicans express significant skepticism about the honesty of public health experts on coronavirus; Democrats don’t.
Even coronavirus is partisan.
Trump aside, state and local governments are as important in responding to COVID-19 as federal authorities. They are closer to outbreaks and often lead efforts to prevent and contain them. These are your friends and neighbors protecting your communities.
America’s governors have been the stars of the coronavirus response. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly and Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, have transparently updated the public and outlined state capabilities. Heck, even Susan Wagle, the Republican state Senate president, praised the governor’s administration on this.
KDHE has resources to stay informed about COVID-19 in Kansas. Follow them on Twitter @KDHE. Visit online at www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus, or call the hotline at (866) 534-3463.
No, government alone cannot stop COVID-19. Individuals must practice personal responsibility in following recommended health practices. State and local governments are providing leadership, and citizens should trust and work with them to preserve public health.
Second, as the Wichita Eagle recently reported, Kansas has chronically underfunded public health. For example, funding for the State Formula Grant, which gives local health departments discretionary money to use on things like COVID-19 response, has not increased in nearly three decades.
Consequently, local health authorities in Kansas might not have access to immediate and adequate funding to respond to coronavirus diagnoses. Sixty-eight Kansas counties qualify for just $7,000 from this grant. And many counties could face complications in rearranging how other dollars are used because of spending restrictions.
It’s easy to condemn past underfunding of public health, and Kansas has many financial needs as it recovers from formrer Gov. Sam Brownback. But, will this experience teach us to better prepare for the next pandemic?
Third, fears of a coronavirus-driven recession are mounting. Luckily, the state has substantial financial reserves after ending the Brownback tax experiment, and Kelly has emphasized growing that cushion.
The pro: Kansas is better prepared financially for any recession than it would have been under Brownback’s tax experiment. The con: The size of that cushion is already expected to fall, and it could disappear if a recession craters state revenue. The long-term lesson for policymakers is to continue budget practices that provide Kansas a solid financial cushion.
Crises like this are a critical moment for self-assessment. If citizens can trade cynicism for trust, we can get through this better. And if policymakers can internalize lessons that are already obvious, then we can better prepare for the next public health crisis.
— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.