Do you care if you spread COVID-19 to people you don’t know?

Can people be persuaded to protect folks they never meet?

Medical staffer Christopher Peter checks on a ventilator tube for a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at the United Memorial Medical Center on November 29, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Texas reports more than 1.2 million positive cases of Covid-19, and more than 21,800 deaths. (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

It’s hard to hold people accountable when they can’t be confronted with the consequences of the harm they cause. That’s one of the most frustrating aspects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Behavior that puts other people at risk and rhetoric that encourages that behavior can’t necessarily be linked to specific cases, hospitalizations and deaths. So the dangerous behavior and rhetoric continue.

Louisiana is experiencing “increasing community spread,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference two days before Thanksgiving, which means more people are getting infected with COVID-19 without knowingly interacting with an infected person. Which means more people are infecting — and potentially causing the deaths of — people they don’t know.

Think about how difficult that makes it to slow the spread of a killer virus. It’s hard enough convincing people to adopt healthy habits that may protect and extend their own lives, and now we’re asking them to do things to protect the lives of people unseen.

The week before Gov. Edwards’ press conference Louisiana had a rate of 172 new cases per 100,000 people. But by the time of that press event, the rate had skyrocketed to 474 new cases per. That’s why Edwards said he was moving the state from Phase 3 of its coronavirus reopening plan back to a “revised Phase 2.”

That means lower capacities in restaurants, gyms and “nonessential” retail establishments and sports stadiums. And more restrictions on bars.

“What we’re seeing now is as concerning as it has ever been,” Joe Kanter, the state’s interim head at the Office of Public Health, said at that press conference. 

“If there was ever a time to step up and be a good neighbor, whether it’s to your actual neighbor or to somebody in Louisiana you’ve never met, that time is now,” Edwards said.

Indeed it is, but people have a hard time feeling for people they’ve never met.

In “Button, Button,” an episode of the 1980s remake of “The Twilight Zone,”  a stranger shows up at a couple’s door and offers them a large sum of money if they push a button that will cause the death of “someone whom you don’t know.” The husband and wife argue back and forth about what they should do, but a big question hanging over the episode is this: Is it possible to feel guilty about a death one causes but can’t perceive?

One doesn’t sense any guilt from Louisianans who’ve defied public health orders during a crisis that has now killed 6,407 people in Louisiana. Nor does one sense any guilt from elected officials who’ve encouraged defiance of those orders and disrespect for the governor for issuing them. 

On the night that 65 of the 68 Republicans in the Louisiana House presented a petition they hoped would temporarily halt the governor’s public health emergencies, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said, “The governor has been violating his legal authority since March….We don’t think you need the government telling you how to live your life.” 

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry defended the right of House members to end the governor’s order, and when a judge ruled that they can’t do end it without the Louisiana Senate, Landry complained that the ruling “turns Louisiana into a dictatorship under King Edwards.”

Even though the judge later ruled against those House Republicans, statistician Jeff Asher, who has created a dashboard to track COVID-19 cases, wrote on Twitter that Louisiana’s third wave of COVID-19 cases began roughly 10 days after Republicans trumpeted their petition and encouraged people to make their own decisions.

We can trust that they won’t accept any blame, though. In part because we can’t draw a straight line from an irresponsible remark to any particular death bed.

Still, it matters what public officials say. Likening the governor to a tyrant encourages acts of rebellion.  And rebellion against these public health orders can only add to the 232,000 COVID-19 cases the state has already counted.

The ”Twilight Zone” ends with the entrance of karma. After the couple pushes the button, the stranger promises that the box will now “be offered to someone whom you don’t know.”

But the state’s Republicans seem impervious even to karma. Rep. Gabe Firment, one of the Republicans who tried to check the governor’s power via petition, announced in the Natchitoches Parish Journal Wednesday that not only does he have COVID-19, but that he has also “personally lost friends to the virus, and I have had family members hospitalized for treatment.”

But referring to the governor’s Phase 2 decision Firment wrote, “I would urge him to consider that we are a free people capable of making our own decisions about the health and well-being of our families.”

On television after hubris comes humility. In Louisiana, after hubris comes more hubris and more people gasping till they’re dead.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry, editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.