If American states were treated as countries, the places with the highest per capita coronavirus death rates would be: Slovenia, South Dakota, North Dakota, Bulgaria, Iowa, Bosnia, Hungary, Croatia, Illinois, North Macedonia, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, San Marino.

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof stopped me in my tracks with this paragraph in his most recent opinion column in the Sunday New York Times. I have family roots (“ruhts” is how my Dad would say it) in South Dakota. What would that farm boy, who left the prairie to bang the drum for democracy in 1955, think about his home state leading the world in this most awful of ways?

Rugged individualism and stubborn self-reliance don’t make great bedfellows with the coronavirus. Governor Kristi Noem, who hails from the same area as my family, refuses to give the people of South Dakota — her bosses — the public health protection they need to stay alive: a mask mandate. Her freedom philosophy encouraged half a million motorcycle riders to assemble in Sturgis, South Dakota, for ten days last summer, the rally becoming a super-spreader event for the upper Midwest. And she is proud to be in the wrong.

Many in the media criticized this approach, labeling me ill-informed, a ‘denier’, and reckless. Some have even asserted that South Dakota is ‘as bad as it gets anywhere in the world’ when it comes to COVID-19.

Governor Kristi Noem

But then there’s my cousin Kristi, a nurse in the Prairie Lakes Healthcare System in the governor’s home town, who got her vaccine a couple of days ago. She posted this article on Facebook by way of encouragement. Now, that’s the kind of leader my family’s home state needs!

Refusing to wear a mask is today’s equivalent of drunken driving. The odds of killing someone are low, but collectively this year the refusal to wear masks will kill far more Americans than driving under the influence. This is the test of our lifetimes. Let’s stop failing it.

Nicholas Kristof

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