All Crises Are Local
"South Dakota is not New York City."
A seemingly innocuous statement, made last Wednesday by Governor Kristi Noem in response to calls for her to issue a coronavirus shutdown across a state with the motto "Under God the People Rule."
South Dakota, after all, is one of the least densely populated states in the vast American West. Surely local circumstances should inform local responses to a communicable disease?
Not so, according to Noem's scolds at Change.org. They want the same "theory" applied in Brooklyn and in prairie towns with eleven residents per square mile.
To her tremendous credit, Governor Noem has held firm against the tide of state officials ordering lockdowns and shelter-in-place directives. As of today five US states do not have statewide shutdown orders in place, and some sheriffs too have stood bravely against impositions of soft martial law.
Here are some of Governor Noem's excellent recent statements regarding South Dakota's response to the pandemic:
The calls to apply for a one-size-fits-all approach to this problem is herd mentality.
The people are primarily responsible for their safety.
Our constitution ensures that the citizen's right is protected. I agree with the role of our government as set forth in our state and in our national constitution.
[I oppose] draconian measures much like the Chinese government has done [and] actions we've seen European governments take that limit [the] citizen's rights.
Refreshing, and also a needed reminder that all crises are local. No matter how rich you are or where you live, you are enormously dependent on localized medical care, food, water, electricity, gas, and general lawful behavior. Every calorie, kilowatt, and drop of water must make its way to your location no matter how complex the underlying economy is today. Doctors, nurses, and drugs must be available within a reasonable distance of your location. None of the physical substances necessary for your survival can be sourced from a global supply chain unless "last mile" delivery remains intact. If faraway production facilities, farms, warehouses, trains, trucks, and power plants break down, eventually Governor Noem's constituents will feel it. People seem to intuit the local impact of a global crisis, and the reality that the greater world is not coming to save them. South Dakotans are entitled to think locally, out of self-preservation, in this crisis.
So are Japanese, Singaporeans, South Korean, and Swedes, for that matter. There is no UN agreement or statement at work concerning the pandemic, nor any universally agreed-upon supranational guidelines. International bodies such as the World Health Organization have been unable to project authority during the crisis, much less gain international compliance with their shifting recommendations. Countries around the world have implemented a hodgepodge of policies, and they've done so unilaterally. China brutally locked down its Hubei Province, while Sweden chooses to keep public life largely unaffected, with virtually no quarantines or business shutdowns. Many countries chose an intermediate path.
In Europe, the 1985 Schengen Area Agreement allowing open travel between twenty-six European countries has broken down due to the virus, with Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and others closing off borders with armed guards. In a crisis, it turns out a German or French passport really is not a "European" passport after all. Nationalities and citizenship, the bane of political globalists, exist. Whether this fact of life is inherently illiberal depends both on one's perspective and how various nations act internally under duress. Is Germany too trenchant in its response to the virus and Sweden too liberal? Who's to say?
The calculation becomes more and more difficult at scale, moving from the local to regional to national to international to global level. Crises remind us exactly why local matters.
This is exactly what we should expect, and want, in a pandemic: competing visions as to the severity and scope of the problem, differing localized approaches, experimental treatments, and nimble entrepreneurial provision of resources and supplies.
To an extent, there will be scoreboard. Some countries and some US states will fare better than others. But questions about top-down control from Washington. DC, or beyond will not go away. Federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have looked foolish and impotent throughout this crisis, as has the Trump administration's infectious disease expert Dr. Fauci. If in hindsight cheap antimalarial drugs and antibiotics prove to be effective treatments, the entire narrative of ventilators and lockdowns will appear foolish and destructive.
Yes, there will be accusations, recriminations, and calls for more bureaucracy and more regulations. The political class will gain; the American people will lose. But there is a silver lining as our already dangerously polarized country begins to understand more deeply how South Dakota really isn't New York City at all—and question why that same political class wants one set of rules for 330 million people. After all, if Brooklyn and Sioux Falls don't need the same policy on coronavirus, what about taxes, guns, abortion, climate change, and everything else?