Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and her challenger, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, debate Sept. 10, 2022, at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
President Joe Biden made a striking pronouncement about COVID-19 on Sunday’s “60 Minutes”: “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lotta work on it. … But the pandemic is over.”
That simple statement, which was quickly qualified by both the president and his staff, captures something vital about this political and cultural moment. For many of us — for most of us, perhaps — the pandemic has receded into the background. That long-awaited change has implications for Kansas and our ongoing gubernatorial race as well.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and her Republican challenger, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, face a much-changed race than the one either anticipated a year ago. Abortion rights have become a major issue, after the stunning amendment vote just last month. Both have focused on economic development and schools.
But the pandemic? Well, Schmidt has tried to put Kelly on the spot. Cries of of “lockdown Laura” accompanied his harsh criticism at the Kansas State Fair a couple of weeks ago.
Those attacks lose their potency, though, when even the Democratic president acknowledges that the pandemic is over. Most politicians and news media moved on from relentless focus on the virus months ago. The entire subject becomes a debate about the past. Abortion rights and economic development, on the other hand, are about the future.
Two long years
When we debate what Kelly did during the early weeks and months of the pandemic, we’re now debating actions more than two years in the past. Kansas schools pivoted to remote learning after their scheduled break during the spring 2020 semester. It was then up to individual districts to decide their course for the 2020-2021 school year.
With the hindsight afforded us today by time and vaccines, it’s easy to say that students and teachers would have been just fine if everyone went back in March 2020. But no one knew that at the time.
Each one of us, whether a politician or not, makes the best decisions with the best information that we have. Closed schools and remote learning have indeed had lasting negative effects. But what would have happened if students returned for in-person classes and waves of teachers and parents fell ill? That would likewise have been seen as a political disaster.
Schmidt’s attacks may persuade some voters. And certainly COVID-19 response at all levels of government deserves thorough investigation. But so far, it doesn’t seem to be the key issue in the race for Kansas governor. They attorney general surely wishes it was more prominent, and he’s doing all he can to steer the conversation in that direction.
The two candidates summed up their approaches at the state fair.
Schmidt slammed the governor’s boast of fully funding K-12 education: “Fully funding schools can only work if you don’t lock the kids out of them.”
Her tart reply to COVID-19 criticism: “I will never apologize for protecting the lives of our children.”
Whose line lands best? Perhaps it depends on your party. Perhaps it depends on whether the subject still moves you.
A continuing threat
That all being said, Biden’s proclamation unsettles me just a bit.
To state the obvious: The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Even if we want it to be. Even if we act as though it is.
Kansas statistics show that a handful of people continue to die from the virus, most days of the week. Hundreds of people still fall ill, putting them at risk of serious long-term illness and spreading COVID-19 to others. Nationally, about 360 people die each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Clearly the situation has improved since the darkest days of the pandemic. But I’d sure feel better if folks were blasting the news of newly available, reformulated booster shots everywhere. Except for a smattering of folks online and one friend, I haven’t known anyone rushing out to find the latest jab.
Don’t worry, I know I’m a hypocrite. My family and I stopped wearing masks in most situations earlier this year. After going through the virus in May, we didn’t see much point to it over the summer months.
We’re also all fully vaccinated and planning for the booster. I still don’t go out quite the way I did pre-pandemic, and a crowded room — especially in a college town like Lawrence — can give me the willies. But maybe that’s just the social anxiety talking.
Biden captured the peculiar moment we now share as a nation. The pandemic may be an increasingly distant memory, but COVID-19 has come to stay. We will see how much Kansas voters recall in November.
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