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OPINION | CONNOR THOMPSON: Avoidable tragedy

State sleepwalking into disaster by CONNOR THOMPSON SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | January 7, 2022 at 2:47 a.m.

The devastation of covid-19 in Arkansas has been a tragedy not merely due to the human toll, but because it was eminently foreseeable.

Government officials could have taken steps at many, many levels to mitigate the worst of the devastation, and the fact that many officials failed to act and, in some cases, obstructed proven strategies is unconscionable negligence. Those elected officials who obstructed science-based solutions should pay a steep political price for their actions.

In the 93rd General Assembly this past year, the Arkansas Legislature passed Arkansas Act 977. Act 977 prohibits the state, a state agency or entity, or a political subdivision of the state from mandating a vaccine or immunization for covid-19 and governs requirements for a vaccine or immunization for covid-19 in certain situations when approved by the Legislative Council.

I would implore every member of the Arkansas Legislature who voted to pass Act 977 to take a tour of the UAMS ICU right now and look in the eyes of the covid-19 inpatients to see the consequences of their vote.

I would particularly call on state Sens. Trent Garner and Bob Ballinger to do so. These are the individuals who publicly undermined the ability of UAMS to enact a sensible vaccination mandate, risking the hospital's ability to receive federal Medicare and Medicaid funds. Senator Garner in particular referred to federal covid-19 regulations as a "political ploy" and thought it advisable to put the hospital's ability to deliver care at risk for the sake of litigation.

The leaders of UAMS and other institutions beholden to our Legislature for funding will be too polite to say what needs to be said. So I will say it for them: Members of our Legislature have committed acts constituting negligent homicide. Their actions to obstruct institutions from taking steps to mitigate this disaster with sensible vaccination policies have resulted in individuals dying. Actions have consequences.

I'm not suggesting prosecutors literally charge members of our Legislature with criminal offenses (though perhaps this could be a moment to reflect on who exactly gets targeted by our criminal punishment system and who goes unscathed), but the gravity of their gross negligence cannot be overstated.

Sitting in long lines at covid testing sites, it was a tragic scene in Little Rock following New Year's. This was entirely foreseeable. The infection numbers were at their peak for Arkansas since the beginning of the pandemic just before New Year's Eve. It was foreseeable that New Year's Eve would be a superspreader event. From my experience, it was not possible to obtain a rapid covid-19 test kit in the city of Little Rock on New Year's Day weekend. The lack of action at all levels of government--federal, city, and state--brought to mind Ruth Wilson Gilmore's concept of "organized abandonment."

Navigating this tragedy on a day-to-day level is a constant, confusing minefield. To quote the lyrics of the band Beulah, the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on omicron are often "too many maps and not enough signs." The sheer volume and sometimes-contradictory nature of the public health messaging from the federal government has been overwhelming, even for those of us with the advantage of higher education and social circles of educated and informed people. The perspective of the average Arkansan must be quite a bit more daunting.

So what lessons should we take away from this disaster?

First, stop electing and re-electing charlatans like Senators Ballinger and Garner who do not have the interests of everyday Arkansans in mind. Voters should hold every elected official who worked to pass Act 977 to account for their shortsightedness.

Second, relying upon "personal responsibility" as the lodestar of messaging and policy in an infectious pandemic will always be insufficient. Yes, we all need to wear masks and get our vaccinations, but people are flawed. We will all inevitably make irrational decisions and be manipulated by bad actors.

This is why we need the government to step up and create incentives to put social pressure on individuals to do the right thing: for example, taking away the privilege of eating out at restaurants and going to concerts if a person is not vaccinated. It is a small price to pay considering the scale of the consequences of infecting other people. People who make it harder for institutions to enact these sensible measures are committing political malfeasance.

Finally, and most importantly, we are truly all in this together. We only have each other to rely upon. This experience illustrates that we cannot merely sit passively and expect the government to save us--some elected officials may actually put us in further harm.

Let us take this as an opportunity to take part in mutual aid of neighbors, children, the immunocompromised, the sick and elderly, and all of us. This virus does not discriminate between individuals, but our society's deployment of resources certainly does.

Let's take tragedy as an opportunity for healing, caring, and being patient and empathetic with one another. And knocking the bad actors who harm all of us down a peg.

Connor Thompson has a master's in public service from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and is a juris doctor candidate at the UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. He is the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service. The views expressed are those of the author.

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