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California’s coronavirus death toll is continuing to climb. Its vaccination rates remain low. And some of its residents are losing faith in their governor.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has found himself in an increasingly precarious political position: a Republican-led recall movement is garnering support from far-right groups as well as mainstream Republicans and some Silicon Valley bigwigs. And while the effort is unlikely to succeed in unseating him, even long-term allies are publicly questioning his leadership through this latest, most deadly phase of the crisis.
He was hailed as a national hero in the early months of the pandemic, but Newsom’s job rating has plunged in recent weeks. Just under a third of voters polled by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies rated the governor’s overall handling of the pandemic well, while 44% said he was doing badly. It’s a complete reversal from September, when 49% of those polled by the institute said Newsom was doing an excellent or good job – and 28% rated him poorly.
Criticism has come from all sides. Legislators have been divided over his decision to lift regional stay-at-home orders a week after the state surpassed 3m coronavirus cases. Health workers have been dismayed that some of his recent health directives have diverged from established and emerging scientific research. He has bickered with teachers unions and parents over when and how to reopen the state’s public schools. Activists say he is failing Latino and Black residents, Californians with disabilities and essential workers who are dying at disproportionate rates. And jobless Californians, struggling to access unemployment benefits, have cursed the administration’s bureaucratic inertia.
For many across the state, Newsom’s announcements on the economy, vaccine distribution or school reopenings have felt increasingly dissonant from their dire realities as the pandemic progressed.
Amy Arlund, an ER nurse in the central valley , said she was enraged that hospitals continued to face staff and equipment shortages. “The trust has been broken with especially our government officials, our leaders and the organizations and the agencies that are meant to protect us,” Arlund said. “It feels like we’re expendable.”
Four of her coworkers at the Kaiser Fresno hospital have died because of Covid-19, Arlund said, including a fellow nurse who contracted the virus last summer after the hospital ran so short on PPE and staff resorted to using homemade face shields made of plastic sheets and electrical tape.
For Héctor Manuel Ramírez, a disability rights advocate in Los Angeles who had worked on a behavioral health taskforce the governor launched last year, a breaking point was Newsom’s announcement that in an effort to speed up vaccine distribution, the state would start prioritizing people by age, rather than a profession or medical history.
The news came as Ramírez was preparing funeral arrangements for their brother, Eduardo.
Eduardo was 35, and severely immunocompromised due to Aids, so Ramírez, their family and friends had anxiously watched the state’s chaotic vaccine rollout, hoping his turn would come in the nick of time.
It didn’t. Eduardo died – the fourth of Ramírez’s family to have succumbed to Covid-19.
Ramírez said Newsom had, unlike many of his counterparts in other states, made a strong commitment to addressing health disparities. “I listened to the governor’s coronavirus updates quite regularly, and his words had always brought hope. Now I feel misled, I feel used. I feel like I am without leadership,” they said.
“There has been so much fear and desperation in my community,” they added. “Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, it feels like our leaders have forgotten about us.”
Criticism has also mounted over the state’s handling of school reopenings and unemployment aid. As many of the state’s businesses reopen Newsom has found himself caught up in crossfire between parents of 6m public school students who are anxious to get their children back to class and teachers unions who are worried it’s not safe enough to return.
Newsom late last year had proposed a $2bn plan to help schools reopen in the spring, but school leaders, unions and lawmakers have said it’s inadequate. In a heated meeting with the Association of California School Administrators last week, Newsom responded to demands that all teachers receive vaccines before returning to in-person schooling: “If we want to find reasons not to open, we’ll find plenty of reasons.”
Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment agency has been under fire over a scathing audit last month, which found that as millions of jobless Californias are still to access unemployment benefits the agency paid out more than $11bn on fraudulent claims.
At a hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers from both parties were furious that constituents were queuing in snaking lines at food banks and sleeping in their cars while the state held up aid. “Californians are frustrated, they are infuriated, they are fed up,” said Rudy Salas, a Democratic assemblyman representing parts of the rural Central Valley.
Making life-and-death decisions about who should get the vaccine first, balancing the need to address the state’s economic crisis alongside its health crisis, discerning what is and isn’t safe amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, is of course, impossibly difficult, said Dr Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the UCSF medical center in San Francisco.
Through much of last year, while Donald Trump denied the severity of the pandemic and hawked false miracle cures, Newsom and other governors became “beacons of leadership for the whole country”, Chin-Hong continued. Another poll, from Morning Consult, found that though Newsom’s job ratings had dipped in recent weeks, he’s more popular now than he was before the pandemic struck.
“But as the pandemic has progressed, people have higher expectations,” Chin-Hong said – they expect leaders to explain the reasoning behind public health decisions.
Newsom failed to do that two weeks ago, when he suddenly announced that he would be lifting the state’s most restrictive stay-at-home orders, Chin-Hong said. Even state legislators said they were taken off guard.
“If you think state legislators were blindsided by, and confused about the shifting and confusing public health directives, you’d be correct,” said assemblymember Laura Friedman after Newsom’s announcement. “If you think we have been quiet about it in Sacramento, you’d be wrong.”
Health workers said it doesn’t help that Newsom initially kept the data and reasoning behind the changing rules and guidelines opaque. “The reopening announcement was so sudden. People were so confused because outside hospitals there were mobile morgues full of the body bags of people who’d died from Covid-19,” said Chin-Hong. “It really made people feel unsafe.”
“There’s definitely a communication problem,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. “We’re finding that about half of the public is saying that they don’t have trust in the governor.”
Newsom’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on such critiques.
Many of the groups questioning the governor’s recent policies said he could easily earn back their trust – if he’s willing to work with them.
Christian Ramirez, a policy director for SEIU-USWW, a union that represents more than 45,000 service workers in California, said he was excited to hear Newsom announce last month a plan to send $600 to low-income Californians, including undocumented immigrants. “There has been a willingness from Governor Newsom to ensure that essential workers regardless of their immigration status are not left to fend for themselves,” Ramirez said. But the proposal has not yet been signed into law.
Ramirez said he’d like for the governor to collaborate with unions and advocacy groups to deliver on his promises. “We know how to reach our community – we have mobilized a record-breaking number of folks to go to the polls and vote in recent elections,” he said. The union could easily leverage its network to help hundreds of thousands of workers quickly fill out the paperwork for unemployment benefits, or sign up for vaccination appointments. “We’re not expecting the governor to do it all alone – and we’re willing to stand with him,” Ramirez said.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: California’s governor, once praised, faces backlash over pandemic response | US news