Goddam, Mississippi

by Deanna K. Kreisel (doctorwaffle.substack.com)

This week I had planned to present the 3 Quarks Daily readership with a fluffy little piece about my memories of a grade school foreign language teacher. It was poignant, it was heartfelt, it was funny (if I do say so myself). Above all, it was intended as a brief respite from the nonstop parade of horrors scrolling past our screens every day—a parade in which my own recent writings have occupied a lavishly decorated float. We all deserve a break, I thought. It would be nice to look at some baton twirlers for a minute, listen to an oompa band.

And then. Something happened in my newly adopted home state that has filled me with such rage that I feel I have to write it out in order to be able to move on with my life. Everyone around me—my colleagues and friends—are filled with the same rage, to the point where I think we could use some kind of collective catharsis. It occurred to me yesterday that maybe my monthly essay for 3QD could form a tiny part of such a catharsis. Maybe I could scrap what I’d already written, and quickly write a piece about what happened here on Friday. At the very least, it would feel good to scream a little into the void, even if ultimately no one in the rest of the country really cares. That happens a lot with stuff that goes down in Mississippi.

Before I go any further, let me hasten to say the following. I am about to complain about Covid protocols at a university. I fully recognize that many, many other faculty, staff, students, and teachers across the country are dealing with horrifying working and learning conditions right now—not to mention, of course, what health care workers are going through. I do not mean to imply that we are somehow special. And yet—who are we kidding? It’s Mississippi. Of course we’re special! If you’ve been checking the New York Times Covid coverage for the past couple of weeks you might have noticed that things here are … challenging. For weeks our state has occupied pride of place as the top, labelled line in all the new-case graphs published above the fold. Indeed, we are now number one in the world for Covid transmission. So please bear with me as I attempt to complain about my own patch while simultaneously recognizing that it’s pretty bad all over the place.

Some statistics before we dive in. As of Sunday, August 29th, only 38% of Mississippians are fully vaccinated—and that includes a significant jump in numbers since the Delta surge started scaring the pants off (some) people who had been hesitating to get the shot. We have 103 new cases and 58 new hospitalizations per 100,000 people. Even though just in the last two days Florida has edged us out of the #1 spot for those statistics, we can take pride in the fact that we are still the champions of Covid deaths, at 1.38 per 100,000. Most importantly, our hospitals are simply crushed. My own local hospital declared itself an official “disaster” a few days ago, and announced that it could no longer provide adequate care for trauma and stroke patients. A local ER doctor helpfully informed the public that “citizens should use extra precautions during their day to avoid being injured.” We should drive carefully, not “overdrink to the excess that [we] have to go to the hospital,” and (my personal favorite) “be careful when using power tools.” Sage advice at the best of times, but a bit chilling to hear from a medical professional basically telling you that if something bad happens to you, you’re on your own.

So this is our context. I teach at the University of Mississippi, which up until a few weeks ago was blithely planning, along with many other campuses across the country, a return to full normalcy for the fall semester. No masks! No vaccines! No testing! No social distancing! (All these things are “recommended,” of course, even “strongly encouraged.” LOL.) And, of course, packed football stadiums and full-press pre-game tailgating in the Grove, the tradition of which Ole Miss is perhaps the most proud. (“We may lose the football game,” the joke goes, “but we always win the party.”) Unlike many universities, however, UM was painfully slow to turn the ship around once it became clear to most sane and rational people that things were not going to be normal this fall semester. A couple of weeks ago the chancellor announced a temporary (strongly emphasized) mask mandate, which actually makes us ever-so-slightly more enlightened than, say, the University of Iowa, which currently has no Covid protocols in place whatsoever. But that’s it. Nothing else has changed, and all of us at the university are expected to shoulder our way through a deadly pandemic surge with no mandated protections or protocols in place (and no working hospital), unless you count the fact that many of our students now sport colorful bandanas over their noses during class, or surgical masks helpfully covering their chins and lower lips.

Faculty here are, with some significant exceptions, angry and afraid. A little while ago colleagues at Mississippi State circulated a petition demanding that the state adopt a vaccine requirement for educational institutions that garnered over 500 faculty signatures. And yet, nothing has happened and frustration levels among my colleagues are through the roof. In my own corner of the university—that hotbed of pinko commie leftist bleeding hearts otherwise known as an “English department”—the anger and fear are probably close to universal. (I should emphasize that I am, of course, speaking only for myself in this essay, and my views do not represent any sort of official position on the part of my department.) Most of the colleagues I’ve spoken to don’t understand why the university has refused to take the most basic, straightforward measures to ensure the health and safety of the entire community—and that includes not only faculty, staff, and students at the university, but the residents of the city of Oxford and Lafayette County generally, where there are a large number of vulnerable retirees.

Oh but wait—who am I kidding? We know exactly why the university has not taken these measures, because the Institutes of Higher Learning (our state-wide board of regents) held an emergency meeting on Friday in which they helpfully laid it all on the line. And recorded themselves doing so. My colleagues and friends were genuinely excited when we learned that an emergency board meeting had been called, assuming that it must mean that a vaccination mandate was in the offing now that the Pfizer vaccine had won full FDA approval. Many folks actually took time out of their crazy-busy days to tune in to the broadcast of the meeting or listen to it on YouTube afterwards. We were able to do so for two reasons: 1. It was only 15 minutes long. And 2. The members of the IHL met remotely in order to protect their health. Allow me to say that part again. The members of the IHL met remotely in order to protect their own health. Because everyone knows that it’s not safe to crowd into small, unventilated rooms the size and shape of, oh, say, a college classroom during a global pandemic! We couldn’t possibly ask anyone to take such a risk.

To say that the meeting itself was a fucking joke would be to insult the long, rich tradition of fucking jokes throughout human history. The meeting began—and this part is not the joke—with the two members of the IHL who happen to be medical doctors (more on that in a minute) testifying that things are bad out there, folks. Young people are showing up in the ERs and ICUs in alarming numbers, many of them are terrifyingly ill and even dying, and many more of them are facing long-term, perhaps permanent disability as a result of their illnesses. These two doctors have witnessed this situation with their own eyes, and they strongly urged the board to adopt a vaccine mandate in order to protect the young people of the state. As they pointed out, younger people tend to think of themselves as invincible and immortal, and they will need to be forced to be vaccinated; school vaccine requirements remain an excellent mechanism for doing so.

This is when things got hilarious. The first member to speak after the doctors’ testimony, whose qualifications to make educational policy and to lead the citizens of her state through a global pandemic are that she is the CEO of a truck manufacturing company, opined: “I’ve spoken with a couple other doctors recently who think we’ve peaked and that we may be about to see a downturn. I’m not quite sure how they justified it or where that information comes from, but do we have anything to support that information?” The response came: “Nothing definitive…. There have been reports that some think that we have peaked or are close to peaking, but we really don’t know anything for sure because those reports are based on predictive models…. But there have been some reports to that effect.”

The two medical professionals tried to push back on this rigorous line of inquiry by pointing out that it doesn’t really matter if new case numbers have peaked in the state if the peak is staggeringly high, that people still need to be protected through vaccination, and that unvaccinated people remain hosts for the virus to mutate into “the next Greek letter variant to be coming down the road.” There was then some discussion among the other board members about how they think they heard somewhere maybe that at Mississippi State “something like” 53% of students are vaccinated, which is higher than the state average, and therefore they are already leading the state. Leading a state (maybe!) that is literally the worst in the nation. No offense, Missisippi State, but this is perhaps not a stat you want to include in next year’s glossy recruitment brochures.

But wait—there’s so much more. The next part of the meeting consisted of a series of sage observations to the effect that many people in Mississippi refuse to be vaccinated, and that therefore requiring them to be vaccinated will not work because they will refuse to be vaccinated: “I don’t know how in the world you’re gonna get people to be vaccinated by demanding that they be vaccinated because they’re just not gonna do it.” Take that, Socrates! Furthermore (and aha my friends! here is where we get to the nubbin) “we have already taken their money” and “it’s kind of changing the rules” to now demand that they be vaccinated. I mean, fair enough. I suppose it is also, technically speaking, “changing the rules” to demand that anyone adopt any number of pesky behaviors in response to the fact that we are nearly two years into a devastating global pandemic. No fairsies! Unfortunately, as George Costanza is so fond of reminding us, “We’re trying to have a society here.”

One board member, in response to the, ah, money question, asked if enrollments would be affected by a vaccine mandate. Another member responded thus: “Conventional thought would lend you to believe that, you know, if you had students that were strongly enough opposed, either the student or their parents, that they did not want to be vaccinated, sure the possibility exists that, you know, those students with those strong feelings may choose to leave the university. It’s certainly a possibility.” Here are some other scenarios that are certainly a possibility: aliens might land in the center of campus, take over all Psychology 101 sections, and indoctrinate enrolled freshmen in the cult of worship of their deity Axchabar-ha; a few students might leave the University of Mississippi if a vaccine mandate was adopted but many others might choose to come here because they knew they would be safer; a nuclear bomb might fall on Water Valley, Mississippi, and we would have to cancel classes for a few days as a result.

There’s not much more to say. The meeting continued on in this vein—a shockingly ill-informed gallimaufry of half-baked observations, unsubstantiated hearsay, irresponsible speculation, and lazy self-serving conjectures, until the board members limped their way to the inevitable, foregone conclusion: everyone voted against the vaccine mandate except for the two doctors. And, scene.

Here is an incomplete list of things that our esteemed leaders and highly qualified titans of industry did not discuss during their hundreds of seconds of careful deliberation: actual statistics or surveys of students and parents and their preferences with regard to a vaccine mandate; the health and safety of staff, faculty, or their unvaccinated children and vulnerable family members (or indeed, our existence at all); the fact that the University of Mississippi Medical Center adopted a vaccine mandate several weeks ago; contingency plans for the inevitable waves of infection and quarantine that are right around the corner; the optics of including on their website the reminder that “due to recommendations from the Mississippi State Department of Health for social distancing due to the coronavirus, members of the Board may participate in the meeting via teleconference or an online meeting platform” when faculty at their flagship institution of higher learning are expressly forbidden from holding their classes remotely unless they have a documented disability and petition to do so; anything at all other than tuition money and the tender, delicate feelings of students (and parents!) who don’t like the idea of this new vaccine one little bit, no sirree.

Please don’t get me wrong. I can actually imagine a scenario in which a rational, deliberative body of experts might come to the conclusion—after carefully weighing the evidence and hearing informed testimony on all sides—that a vaccine mandate, on balance, is not the best course of action for their institution. I myself don’t know the answer to that question; I’m just a Victorian literature scholar, not a trucking magnate, so I humbly acknowledge that there might be information I don’t have and a perspective I have not considered. Furthermore, I am a newcomer here; it’s only my third year living and teaching in Mississippi, so there is a lot I still don’t understand about this place (and that is a hilarious understatement). But I have deep affection for my new weird state, and I freaking love my colleagues and my students and my new friends. I feel lucky to be here, and I try to keep my eye on all the ways in which my privilege makes it possible for me to feel so lucky. That said, anyone reading this who disagrees with me is well within their rights to tell me to STFU about matters I don’t fully understand, and I don’t have much of a comeback there. But I do know this much: this emergency “meeting” of the IHL (remote meeting! to protect their health!) was a travesty and an embarrassment. The decision the board members just made will contribute directly to the deaths of real people. Including young people. Including (since this is all the IHL seems to care about) people whose parents will stop paying tuition dollars to universities in Mississippi because they are, you know, dead. And to anyone who thinks I should STFU about it, I will demonstrate that I understand at least a little bit about my new home by sweetly replying, “Bless your heart.”