Gavin Newsom, Jonah, protest, and the preparation paradox, COVID-19

Gavin Newsom, governor of California–where I live–has done a pretty good job in managing the awful coronacrisis. He’s acted quickly and decisively, taken strong measures informed by science and data, and has explained his decisions.

It’s been a hassle: after the governor prohibited large gatherings, spectators (including me) were banned from my daughter’s first high school swim meet of the season–the last meet of the season. Then public school went online in response to his directives, and my university went online at about the same time. Almost all business shut down and toilet paper vanished from the supermarket shelves.

But California, where the very first COVID-19 cases in the United States appeared, has had relatively low rates of infection and an even lower rate of fatalities from the virus. (You can find data on many sites, including Johns Hopkins University, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, for starters.) Hospitals have managed better than elsewhere, and as frustrated as it is to be stuck at home, I think we’ve been pretty well protected.

I’m not sure that every Newsom decision was exactly right, and there are certainly lots of frustrations, but I’m convinced that the governor made informed decisions in consultation with people who knew more than me. The data tell a story.

Note: Although Newsom was first, he was not the only data-driven decisive governor: Jay Inslee (D-Washington) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) were among the chief executives paying attention to experts early and taking the political risk of saving lives.

But saving lives through prevention doesn’t present as clearly as pulling someone out of a burning building. It’s easy to ignore the infections that we don’t get, particularly when the infectious agent isn’t banging up against the front door. Because we have to work to see what these strict stay at home orders are protecting us from, resentment can grow easily.

A vigorous, if so far limited, opposition to Governor Newsom has staged an escalating series of protests to open up California: the beaches, the beauty shops, the businesses. Newsom has been the face of the state and the target of opposition.

Partly, it’s the paradox of preparation, and it evokes one of my favorite Bible stories, Jonah. Here’s the summary:

God tells Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that He is going to destroy them because of their evil ways. Jonah doesn’t want to do it, because he thinks the Ninevehans (?) will repent, God will relent, and he (the prophet) will look like a jerk. After an interlude with a great fish, Jonah comes to his senses and delivers the news to Nineveh. The residents repent, God relents, and nothing is destroyed. Jonah, angry and disappointed at the lack of follow-through, is then taught a lesson on compassion.

Point: there is every reason to believe that Jonah saved a city. And Newsom saved many lives. But their efforts left Nineveh–or California–worse off than before the warning. Californians are stuck in their houses with work drying up and massive state budget cuts on the horizon; the Ninevehites (?) are mourning, fasting, covered in ashes and sackcloth, with rented (torn) clothes. It doesn’t feel like a win.

And people are angry about the pain. This is why, by the way, it’s so easy to ignore the routine maintenance of our personal and public life: vaccines, painting bridges, updating software, building maintenance, colonoscopies….


The vigorous protests against Newsom, directed to “opening up” California, make for powerful images: unmasked demonstrators pushing up against police; flags and invocations of the Constitution; and frustrated surfers holding boards aloft. If Newsom and the experts are right, they’re also dangerous.

We hope that no one in Sacramento or Huntington Beach, committed to the Constitution and liberty, is carrying the virus that might be spread to an ally or to a police officer at work–and then a family or a workplace and beyond. But the relatively limited disease and damage numbers that reflect Newsom’s proactive–and provocative–decisions could quickly disappear.

There will be no one clamoring to the cameras to claim credit for driving up the infection and fatality rates in California. The rates will prove to protesters that Newsom’s restrictions were ineffective and pointless at best.

Effective politics demands a coherent story, ideally informed with fact, linking together a series of events, and measured against the possible. Telling the truth about bad news is hard under the best of circumstances, and it’s harder when you know that some portion of your audience won’t listen and has easy access to an alternate explanation unencumbered by fact.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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