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Troublesome enough / September 09, 2020
The single best description I’ve seen for COVID-19 comes from an Aug. 4 piece in The Atlantic by Ed Yong, who wrote that SARS‑CoV‑2 (the official designation of the novel coronavirus) “is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way.”

As Yong notes, the coronavirus is not wildly virulent, but it’s infectious enough to be a constant threat, and it’s by no means a death sentence, but it’s certainly deadly enough to have stolen away nearly 200,000 American lives (a count that rises daily). COVID-19 has also had the strange effect of tearing the country apart, exposing societal fissures that have sapped our collective ability to confront a problem other countries have managed to contain. Hence the title of Yong’s piece: “How the Pandemic Defeated America.” (

More than a month after publication, the article remains a terrific, if depressing, read — covering the breath of America’s failures from top (i.e., just about everything coming out of the Trump White House) to bottom (the pernicious effects of misinformation, brought to you by Facebook and Fox News, just to name two chief offenders). There’s also been the middling response by the Centers for Disease Control and rash decision-making by states that were overly eager to reopen their economies, all part of Yong’s comprehensive autopsy of a national failure. What we’re left with is a pandemic with no endgame in sight, other than the development of an effective and widely available vaccine, which is a fraught subject unto itself. No one needs to read a long magazine piece to grasp what an utter disaster this year has been, but I’ll recommend Yong’s contribution nonetheless.

All of this came to mind this week with students and teachers around the country, including here in Mecklenburg, “going back to school” on Tuesday. The scare quotes don’t begin to capture the weirdness (and sadness) of the moment, but you have to start somewhere. It certainly doesn’t much feel like the start of a new school year for students who are stuck at home, trying to figure out clunky mechanisms for receiving a meaningful education. The sense of anti-deja vu (we haven’t been here before) surely also applies to students who are returning to class — riding school buses and showing up for face-to-face learning with their teachers, with everyone protected by masks and sanitizer bottles and what may well prove to be a heavy dose of wishful thinking.

Look, the impact of lost school days due to the pandemic has been hard on everybody, and I can’t imagine a less desirable job right now than school superintendent or school board member. Yet as much as everyone wants the school year to proceed successfully, with students once again happily learning in the classroom, I just can’t see it.

Clarksville Elementary ran into problems with COVID-19 before the school year even began, with the principal and assistant principal forced to go into quarantine after coming into contact with a school employee who tested positive for the virus. What are the odds of the school — any school — making it through the first month without a full-blown outbreak? The evidence thus far, gathered from K-12 school districts and colleges and universities throughout the U.S., suggests those chances are pretty poor.

Let’s pivot to a different but related topic — voting. Sept. 18 marks the start of Virginia’s early voting period, which runs through Election Day, Nov. 3. Officially, the process is known as “no-excuse absentee voting,” owing to a change in state law that relieved voters of the obligation to state an permissible reason for voting absentee (travel plans, workplace schedule conflicts, etc.) For all practical purposes, this will be the first major election in which Virginians can enjoy the same early voting opportunities that have long been available in other states. It’s an enormous improvement — pandemic or no pandemic.

You can thank Virginia Democrats for the upgrade. Perhaps you read the constituent columns of Del. Tommy Wright and state Sen. Frank Ruff, and from those have formed the impression that Democrats in Richmond are ruining the Commonwealth, despite, horror of horrors, the party’s ongoing record of winning elections statewide. The early voting story is only one in a number of worthy reforms that expose Ruff and Wright’s rhetoric for what it is: a bunch of overheated nonsense.

Long story short: Virginia has a long history of limiting the franchise and suppressing voter participation, from Jim Crow laws that forcibly disenfranchised Black citizens, to our lamentable off-year gubernatorial election calender designed to depress turnout, to the ban on ex-felons regaining their right to vote (something else Democrats in Richmond overturned.) It’s long been said that people who commit crimes must repay their debt to society, but for far too long, Virginia offered no hope to those who wanted to put the past behind them — who paid their debts to society — and sought to recommit to civic life. It’s politicians like Wright and Ruff who stood in the way of that progress, just as they now stand with a Republican Party that is actively seeking to undermine your right to vote. Where are the angry columns by our local lawmakers criticizing Donald Trump for his Post Office shenanigans? The question answers itself.

If you vote by mail, it’s a good idea to do so early to minimize any chance of sabotage (or honest errors, given the likelihood that honest election officials may be dealing with a crush of ballots.)

This past week, Gov. Northam signed another Democrat-backed bill to provide ballot drop-off boxes for voters to use. One will be stationed at the County Registrar’s Office on Madison Street in Boydton. I would also suggest voting early in person at the Registrar’s Office, which will offer Saturday hours on the two weekends before Election Day. And it must be further noted that voting in person on Tuesday, Nov. 3 is probably safe, at least if you go into the precinct station wearing a mask and practice social distancing. The long lines for the presidential vote four years ago should be thinned out to some degree by early voting, and it’s hard to think that we could have gotten this far in the pandemic without precautions being in place at polling places, just as you see at Food Lion, CVS and practically every other retail location nowadays.

Be sure to vote — your country depends on it. Make your voice heard at every level — Mecklenburg County will be better for it. That leads to a final point, inspired by a Viewpoint letter published elsewhere on this page by Timothy Hatley of Chase City. Hatley upbraids the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors for scheduling a public hearing on the Courthouse Square’s Confederate statue on a Tuesday morning, Sept. 15 at 9 a.m. at Park View High School in South Hill. His letter is gratuitously nasty — “[t]he agitators and racists will be there in full force since none of them probably hold down jobs,” Hatley writes, without specifying which non-working racists he may be referring to — but the point is well-taken: Public hearings should never be scheduled for the morning workday hours. (For that matter, neither should the regular monthly meetings of the board of supervisors.) Supervisors have not suggested what they may want to do with the statue — here’s one working stiff who says they should take it down and put it in a museum — but regardless, the limited opportunity for public input is a bad look, and very bad practice.

One question for Mr. Hatley, though: If he does find a way to show up to speak, does that mark him as an agitator and racist who doesn’t hold down a full-time job? And will the same be true of anyone who speaks up on behalf of keeping the Confederate monument in place? Asking for a friend ....

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