PHOTO: Northam press conference

Surrounded by state officials, Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a March 11, 2020 press conference in Richmond announcing Virginia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

THE Founding Fathers, or as is more customary these days to simply call them the Founders—folks like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton (you know, the guy they wrote the musical about), James Madison, Ben Franklin, John Adams, to name a few—were on to something when it came to this notion of Federalism.

What’s more, in the case of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, it’s a concept and a structure that may be the single most important factor in getting us through the current outbreak.

Specifically, I am talking about the states. We sort of take them for granted. But they represent an important part of the genius of the Founders.



And lest we forget, the states were actually there first. The modern-day federal government is literally a creation of the states. If the original 13 states hadn’t approved it, there would be no federal government.

That said, as the federal government now reels under coronavirus, it’s the states, with their local expertise, that are proving to be our nation’s lifeline.

Every state, as the Fourth Amendment demands, has a republican structure. It’s a mini-federal government, with its own executive, legislative and judiciary branch. But it goes many steps further than that.

State governments, as pointed out by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, “are closer to the people and can focus on the welfare of the people.”

That means they are well placed to help their citizens in a crisis like the coronavirus. However, right now, they’re doing it pretty much on their own.

Every state has a health department, most have epidemic control plans, and most have emergency health management teams. Governors and state authorities can call on the National Guard, state medical authorities, and the state police during a medical emergency. They also have varying emergency powers over businesses and commerce.

Usually, in a big outbreak, and the coronavirus has been classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, state health departments would look to the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for guidance and direction. However, until recently the focus went much higher than that.

The National Security Council had a special pandemic response team. This was an impressive organization. It had proven effective in several smaller outbreaks. These were the medical and security professionals whose sole purpose was to deal with the kind of crisis we’re facing now.

But, alas, the administration disbanded the team in May 2018.

The states are in a bind on this one. They are used to looking to the federal government for information, data, and if needed, critical medical equipment. Test kits for the coronavirus, for example. The latter, which is an invaluable way to track this unusual virus, can be a godsend when it comes to managing and containing it.

However, this is where Washington has let us down. In Virginia, for example, a state with 8 million people, our capacity to test for the virus is about 500 a day. In Korea, even the lowliest clinic has access to test kits.

So now it’s up to the states, all 50 of them, to act on their own. Remarkably, they’re doing a pretty good job of it.

Virginia, whose governor is a doctor, has organized protocols for handling patients and has been aggressive about closing schools and universities with the intent of lowering the number of new cases. Other state governors have proven just as effective. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken a decisive role in managing the state’s response to the coronavirus.

Blue or red, conservative or liberal, labels don’t seem to matter when it comes to states’ taking care of their citizens in the current coronavirus crisis.

In Alabama, a ruby red state if ever there was one, citizens are looking to their state’s department of health for guidance on the outbreak of the disease, what they should do, and what they can expect. The same is true in Idaho, Texas and California. Where the people might have once turned to the federal government for guidance, they’re looking to the states instead.

That’s not to say the states can handle this one on their own. Having the resources of the federal government would help a great deal. However, the federal government’s response, so far at least, has been feeble.

So in the interim, the unique role the Founders saw for the states in our federal system is proving its value. In this case, as James Madison predicted, it’s the government that’s closest to the people that’s been the first to act.

David S. Kerr, a Stafford County resident, has worked on Capitol Hill and for federal agencies. He is an instructor in the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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