“To visit Iowa right now is to travel back in time to the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in places such as New York City and Lombardy and Seattle, when the horror was fresh and the sirens never stopped,” Godfrey wrote. “The virus has been raging for eight months in this country; Iowa just hasn’t been acting like it.”
Then again, has California? It got educated early, but if the lessons had taken as well as they should have, its governor, Gavin Newsom, might not have had to announce the stringent new lockdown measures that he did on Thursday as the state’s intensive care units were stretched almost to the limit. In New York City, meanwhile, the daily rate of positive coronavirus tests exceeded 5 percent for the first time since May, according to city figures.
The truth is that the Dakotas are as emblematic as they are exceptional, the American story — or at least a strain of it — in miniature. In resisting the lockdowns, slowdowns and sacrifices that many other states committed to, they indulged and encouraged a selective (and often warped) reading of scientific evidence, a rebellion against experts and a twisted concept of individual liberty that was obvious all over the country and contributed mightily to our suffering.
“North Dakotans will come to each other’s aids in a heartbeat, but when asked to give up personal freedom for an amorphous common good — that’s difficult,” Paul Carson, an infectious-diseases doctor and a professor of public health at North Dakota State University, told me. Just recently, Carson said, a lawmaker from the western half of the state — whose denizens regard its eastern half, where Carson lives, as elitist and too liberal — wrote to him to share a famous quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
For too long, staying safe from the coronavirus was indeed an amorphous mission to many North and South Dakotans, and their false sense of security was surely intensified by what they heard from President Trump, who spoke of disease-ridden blue states versus freedom-loving red ones and kept promising that this would all blow over. “We maybe believed that our rural nature sheltered us from what cities like yours were experiencing,” Carson said. “Then we found out, very brutally, that was wrong.”