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Pierce writes: "In rural Missouri, the anti-maskers relied on the fact that the pandemic had yet to fill the area hospital beds. That is no longer the case."

COVID testing. (photo: Shutterstock)
COVID testing. (photo: Shutterstock)

Sometimes, Freedom's Just Another Word for Not Giving a Damn

By Charles Pierce, Esquire

23 October 20

In rural Missouri, the anti-maskers relied on the fact that the pandemic had yet to fill the area hospital beds. That is no longer the case.

ot long ago, in the VIP room of the shebeen, we talked to Kenneth Starnes, an emergency room physician in what he calls "Winter's Bone" country along the border of Missouri and Arkansas. We talked about the unique problems facing rural healthcare workers in a time of pandemic. At the time, the system in which Starnes works wasn't yet completely overwhelmed. Now, as KSMU reports, the time of reckoning has arrived in a place temperamentally and culturally ill-suited to cope with it.

That independent, Ozarks spirit was on full display at an August forum in West Plains, the county seat of Howell County in south-central Missouri. Many residents were there to passionately argue against a mask ordinance, and the theme that emerged centered on freedom. West Plains resident Joyce Oak said the ordinance would be a dangerous precedent. Here’s some audio from that forum from the city’s Facebook page. “We are on a slippery slope to totalitarian fascism, and it needs to be stopped,” Oak said from the podium. Another resident, Clifton Earles, gave a fiery speech, calling City Council members “self-important” and “scalawags” for even considering the ordinance. “Since when do you even have the authority to mandate anything?" Earles asked. "You derive your authority from the consent of the governed. You work for us, you do not rule us, and we do not consent.”

The anti-maskers relied on the fact that the pandemic had yet to fill the area hospital beds. That is no longer the case.

Cases in Howell County have climbed from 40 to about 1,400, and several families are reporting that the local hospital couldn’t admit their loved ones with COVID-19 because it had reached capacity. So far, at least 20 Howell County residents have died from the disease. And according to the public health department, every nursing home in Howell County except one currently has an outbreak of COVID-19...

The World Health Organization has said a general rule of thumb for determining if the virus is under control is if the percent of positive coronavirus tests is below 5%. Missouri’s health department reported Saturday that the positivity rate over the last seven days is 19.7% statewide. Howell County’s positivity rate sits at 29.6 percent. Six counties reported rates above 50%, and all six of those are considered rural.

This is murderous, and it's hard to believe that the situation isn't the same in rural areas all over the country. For decades now, ambitious politicians, most of whom live on either coast, have blown sunshine up the asses of people in the middle of the country, praising their rugged individualism and using them as helpful marketing archetypes in our national political branding competitions. Small wonder that so many of the people now behave like those archetypes in real life, pandemic and their neighbors be damned.

Meanwhile, West Plains resident Susan DeMuria wishes local authorities would issue new restrictions—because leaving it up to “personal responsibility” isn’t stemming the tide. DeMuria has asthma, and she’s spent almost the entire pandemic isolating and gardening at her home. "I have been in the ICU with asthma, and I know what it's like not to be able to breathe. So, for me this is real. I know what this feels like, and I am petrified," she said, on the verge of tears...

She moved to West Plains about 15 years ago with her husband, who’s a cardiovascular perfusionist at a Columbia hospital. The couple decided not to see each other for a while because of DeMuria’s asthma, which is a health risk for COVID-19 complications. She says she feels hurt that people around her don’t believe in masking or other health precautions. “I just really did not feel that they cared about people like me at the city level, at the county level, at the state level," DeMuria said. "And I’m without my husband, who is working every day and doing things to help people, literally keeping people alive, and I can’t even go to the grocery store.”

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