After four hours of driving from my overnight stop in Des Moines, Iowa, I crossed the Big Muddy into my home state of Nebraska. The leafless gray trees paired with the overcast sky made the usually lush riverbank appear strikingly different from how I had always seen it driving to and from my mom’s apartment in Denver. The view was yet another change brought on by the coronavirus’s dizzyingly rapid transformation from something restricted to distant news reports to sending me home from school months early. After Spring Break, I watched my semester and summer plans topple like dominoes as the virus spread uncontained. By the time I left Ann Arbor with my life hastily packed into the back of my Mini Cooper, there was only one plan left standing in the way of the pandemic completely canceling my summer: my 21st birthday. While I knew the day of my birthday would almost surely be spent locked in the apartment, it was my mother’s present to me, a four-day trip to New Orleans, that held my excitement. Planned for late May, enjoying the bountiful bars and history of New Orleans was my final foolish hope.

Defying health officials’ suggestions and government orders aimed at reducing the number of people predicted to swamp Louisiana’s health care system, a group of 1,200 people gathered in the state capital of Baton Rouge. Shoulder to shoulder, the congregation at Life Tabernacle Church listened to pastor Anthony “Tony” Spell. “We’re free people. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to cower. We’re not breaking any laws,” he preached. In response to the backlash, Spell says his congregation has a “constitutional right to congregate” and they believe that the coronavirus is “politically motivated.” As they defiantly and foolishly gathered to pray, COVID-19 cases in Louisiana reached 3,540 on Sunday afternoon. In late February, when the confirmed number of cases in the United States numbered in the 50s, over a million people flocked to New Orleans to partake in the city’s 321-year-old celebration of Mardi Gras. After experiencing the fastest increase in COVID-19 cases in the world in the final weeks of March, the seeds of this disaster seem to have been sown on Bourbon Street.

A city still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina from 15 years ago, New Orleans is bracing to be ground zero of yet another natural disaster. While the number of cases in New York far outweigh those in New Orleans, the death rate of COVID-19 patients is seven times higher than in New York. The reason is simple: “we’re just sicker,” explains Rebekah Gee, former health secretary for Louisiana. Of those who died of the disease in the city, 94 percent had a pre-existing health condition, and New Orleans’s population exceeds the national averages for obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Health officials fear that the rapidly declining situation in New Orleans is just an early taste of what’s to come throughout the South.

A region known for its infamously decadent cuisine, high rates of heart disease make this region of America the most susceptible to the deadly effects of COVID-19. While grandma and grandpa have been painted as the likely victims of this pandemic, pre-existing conditions make anyone that has them — no matter how young — susceptible to the deadly effects of the virus. These groups of individuals are the people that other governors have acted so proactively to save.

Despite this alarming information, many of the region’s state governors have been the most stubborn to implement public health measures. Outside of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ quick, foresightful actions, almost every other governor in the South has been a role model on how not to act during a global pandemic. Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, admitted that he had just learned about asymptomatic carriers on April 2. While his ignorance is seemingly the most inexplicable, others have been equally resistant toward letting facts steer their decision-making through this crisis.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., drew criticism the earliest when thousands of students on Spring Break were filmed crowding beaches. Despite early warnings that the state would become a “hotspot” if measures weren’t taken quickly, DeSantis languidly issued a state-wide stay-at-home mandate to his 18 million citizens on April 2, after 30 other states had already implemented precautionary measures.

This inaction by Southern governors puts those with pre-existing health conditions at high risk. Because of existing health disparities that make racial minorities more likely to have these risk factors, the burden of this disease will not be shared equally among citizens. The disparities can be seen far outside the South in our own state of Michigan, where African Americans make up 70 percent of COVID-19 fatalities in places like Chicago and Louisiana. Similarly, Native Americans, who have the highest rates of pre-existing health conditions, are seriously concerned for the survival of their communities. “When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country… we could get wiped out,” said Kevin Allis, chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians. 

With the response to this disaster now in the hands of the states, there is no way to ensure that these disparities will be accounted for in our responses to coronavirus, greatly exposing the need for federal action that lawmakers and governors struggling with this crisis have been requesting for weeks. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called for the federal government “to step up in a big way,” in addressing these potential inequalities, including access to testing and treatment. While President Donald Trump has been infamous for trying to flex his executive power, he is refusing to do so at the most significant point in his presidency.

As the country braces for one of the worst nationwide disasters, my 21st birthday is likely to fall as another, altogether unimportant victim of the virus. While life in the “Big Easy” — New Orleans — is becoming more difficult by the day, it would be a lot harder if not for the swift action of their government. Other cities throughout the South may not have it so easy thanks to their inept leaders. With cases resurging in parts of Asia that thought they had it under control, federal inaction could lead our nation to the same fate.

Riley Dehr can be reached at

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