Michigan went into a State of Emergency on March 10th due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. This was ordered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as well as the Stay-at-Home order shortly after. Under these orders many businesses had to close until the rate of COVID-19 infections were deemed managed, leaving many folks laid off and filing for unemployment. For businesses deemed “essential,” mask mandates were enforced along with other health and safety measures.
Indeed, it did cause a quick shift in everyone’s lives, at a capacity many of us have never experienced before. Michigan’s response was not perfect—if the state had went into lock down a few days earlier, the outbreaks in the spring could’ve been even less severe. But Michigan was not entirely unique in its response. In fact, many other states imposed similar measures. So why are some politicians treating Whitmer’s Coronavirus response as a tyrannical power grab?
Politicians in the Republican Majority Legislature have been criticizing Whitmer’s use of emergency powers practically as soon as they were declared. Other national actors, including the President, have voiced a similar view that the governor’s use of powers were an overreach and that Michigan needs to ‘open up’.
In the U.S., the pandemic has become highly politicized. Particularly, the divide is over the party’s collective view of the severity of the virus — in some cases, the reality of its existence. Because of this, it is incredibly important to understand the context of both the environment and the actors while analyzing the situation. As well, we have to recognize the distinct difference in the experience of the pandemic through the eyes of everyday people versus those with political power. Everyday people are just trying to keep their heads above water, while those holding political power have the ability to remedy that hardship. In this article I am focusing solely on the actions of folks with political power.
Those opposed to the public health measures described them as tyrannical. Bill Barr, in an instance of racist ignorance, compared the lockdown orders to slavery—which Whitmer called “unhinged.“ The Trump administration has threatened to withhold COVID relief funding on at least two separate occasions; one instance because of the universal mail in ballot initiative in Michigan, and another because of back to school plans. And the state legislature, along with a group called “Unlock Michigan” has been trying to take Whitmer to court over the alleged misuse of her powers. This effort includes a petition that has reportedly gained 500,000 signatures. It should be noted that some legal experts are concerned about the group’s tactics, specifically about the ways in which they obtained the petition signatures.
Whitmer issued the State of Emergency based on powers given to the governor during times of crisis under the Emergency Powers of Governor Act (EPGA) of 1945. In August, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Whitmer’s use of the EPGA.
Issuing a State of Emergency during Coronavirus outbreaks has been widely used by states nationwide, as well as at the federal level. In contrast, the Michigan Legislature is referencing a 1976 law that is very similar to the EPGA, but requires legislative approval within 28 days of issuing it to be able to renew the State of Emergency. They argue that Whitmer’s use of the emergency powers should be held to the renewal standards of the ‘76 law.
Whitmer explained the reasoning behind her Coronavirus response in a recent op-ed. She elaborates that while she recognizes the importance of the legislative branch to “ensure deliberation, debate and public discourse,“ the reality is that emergencies need quick responses to save the most lives.
"There's no question that swift actions remains critical to saving lives," Whitmer wrote.
She isn’t wrong. Michigan was a hotspot in the spring but a lockdown was quickly enforced. Over the summer, Michigan’s COVID numbers stayed relatively steady (though we are seeing them rise again with schools back in session). The steadiness in cases is likely in part because of Michigan’s slow pace in opening back up, as well as the increase in testing, statewide mask measures, and other related COVID regulations. It should be mentioned though that cases are rising again, now that schools have opened back up for both K-12 and colleges.
And when compared to the federal government’s response, which has left over 200,000 dead so far, it seems that enforcing the safety measures recommended by experts does limit the suffering. The federal response has lacked coordination, timeliness, and a general ignorance to how dire the situation is. The U.S. never went on a nationwide lockdown, like most other countries did in some form. With cases reaching one million people worldwide, the United States accounts for roughly ⅕ of the world’s COVID deaths.
Given what we know about COVID’s spread and how government mandates and aid affect it, it does make you curious as to why the Legislature is acting like it is. If they were interested in the health and safety of their constituents, they shouldn’t be trying to strip away measures that have shown to decrease the spread and the suffering. Their demand for the rescinding of powers comes alongside rhetoric against mask wearing and social distancing, yet lacks an actual stimulus for the working people. How can you claim to be fighting for the well-being of your constituents when you are echoing information that is potentially harmful to them, and all while not giving them the support they need to withstand the impact of the virus?
I think it is incredibly important to hold our politicians accountable, and to push them to do better all the time. Politicians are meant to be public servants, and are meant to be a collective voice for their constituents in the government. But politics is often messier than that, and crises are not immune to being used for political gain. We have to investigate every situation as it comes, because there is likely a complex context that comes along with it.
While again, I don’t think everything the Whitmer administration has done with the pandemic has been perfect, they have taken the pandemic as the serious health threat that it is. The powers the federal government had to slow the pandemic were often deployed too late or not at all, and were methods the state lacks jurisdiction over.
The Legislature’s stance may seem like a standard check on the balance of powers, but I do question their motives. It starts to sound like a strategy focused more on gaining political influence — or at least diminishing their adversaries’ — than on the current state of affairs folks are living under. Some are just anti-lockdown, some question the effectiveness of masks and social distancing, and others believe the virus is a hoax. What does it say, when there is a pandemic that has caused over 1 million deaths worldwide, and there are some in power who believe that isn’t ‘bad enough’ to constitute a state of emergency?
Rhetoric against masks, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders does not support the interests of public health, and in fact may be the opposition to one of the best ways for us to slow the spread. A study from the UK found that the Stay Home, Stay Safe order in Michigan saved possibly tens of thousands of lives. Much of the world has been able to cull their spread, through lockdowns and basic public health and safety measures; yet we have some in the Michigan Legislature (and nationwide) that are arguing that none of these measures are necessary. A position isn’t in the interest of people’s well-being if it is okay with a certain amount of them dying or being severely impacted. And it certainly isn’t in the interest of the people when that amount of suffering is justified because it supports the bottom line.
More and more it feels like one side is discussing what we need to do to keep the virus at bay, while the other side is debating if it’s even that dangerous (in a recently released interview from February, Trump admits the extent of COVID’s devastation). You should not have to die a preventable death because your country did not want to take the virus seriously for financial or political gain. The United States’ 200,000+ death toll is not by accident, it has been a choice. It is the result of the decisions made that were too little, too late, to soothe the fears of the financial sector while treating the devastation as if it was a necessary, inevitable consequence.
Whitmer’s response to COVID was never perfect, but I don’t think the argument being levied against her use of powers are of ideological equivalence. Not even being on the same page about the virus’ reality or the neccesity of basic measures experts suggest is one part of this. The other is the willingness to let people die in the name of the economy, and that seems to be the belief also shared by those arguing against things like lockdowns and mask mandates.
Forcing people to risk their lives for the country’s big earners is not patriotic, it’s an abuse of power. Treating certain groups of people as disposable for the ‘good of the country’ is not patriotic, it’s an abuse of power. Playing down the virus’ destruction in communities to win political or financial gains is not patriotic, but an abuse of power.