“The Government Is Trying to Kill Us Now”: Scenes From a Lapsed Covid Emergency

“The Government Is Trying to Kill Us Now”: Scenes From a Lapsed Covid Emergency

“The Government Is Trying to Kill Us Now”: Scenes From a Lapsed Covid Emergency

Political leaders create new emergencies by wantonly suspending emergency relief.


Coming down out of the East Kentucky mountains and heading northwest on the Mountain Parkway, you’ll eventually come to a crossroads. You can go left, where you will find all the various cultural amenities Kentucky has to offer: the bluegrass, the scenic Red River Gorge, the basketball-famous University of Kentucky, horse racing tracks like The Red Mile and Keeneland, and the many bourbon distilleries surrounding Louisville and the state capitol in Frankfort.

Or you can go right, where you will find a terrain of small hills and fertile bottomlands, a kind of liminal zone where the mountains and the bluegrass exchange water, resources, and culture. The people here were once farmers, surface miners, and loggers, and they settled in small villages like Hazel Green and the slightly larger town of West Liberty. Today, their economy is no longer ruled by extractive industry, but mostly shaped by highway expansions and tourism at the Red River Gorge.

Depending on the day and time of your journey, you might see something strange on the side of the road winding to West Liberty: dozens of cars in single file, stretching over a mile back toward the highway, moving a few inches or feet at a time. Inside these cars people listen to cassette tapes, smoke cigarettes, hit oxygen tanks, and make small talk. At the terminal end of their line is a small aluminum shed known as the Hazel Green Food Project, where they will, if they’re lucky, get enough food from the pallets of meat, vegetables, and snacks to last them a few days. It’s a morbid waiting game: these people can be lined up for as long as eight or nine hours a day. Even then, the pantry may run out of food before everyone gets their share.

They are here because Kentucky lawmakers voted last spring to end the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration, terminating emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to thousands of families. The cuts have been nothing short of catastrophic. Some families had their monthly SNAP benefits reduced by hundreds of dollars, and food banks across the state have seen “about a 20 percent increase in need” since May 2022. This is a major reversal from pandemic trends, when we saw a decrease in the metric known as “food insecurity” (a strange euphemism that entered the policy world’s vocabulary only about 30 years ago), along with a decrease in other measures of immiseration, like child poverty and lack of health care.

To make matters worse, this crisis of the family—repackaged and sold to the populace as the end of a health crisis—has intersected with the inflation crisis: food prices have shot up 10 percent from a year ago. Even at pre-pandemic levels of SNAP coverage, families across this benighted and impoverished region of the world—young and old, abled and disabled, employed and out-of-work—would still need to line up outside places like the Hazel Green Food Project, just to be able to afford bread and a few eggs. The implications of such measures aren’t lost on the people waiting outside the food bank. “The government is trying to kill us now,” Danny Blair, one of the men in the automotive bread line ,told The Washington Post. “They are going to starve us out.”

Scenes and statements like this aren’t out of place in this corner of the world. After a historic flood ravaged the impoverished Kentucky River watershed last summer, destroying entire communities and galvanizing a multimillion-dollar recovery effort, thousands of people lined up at food banks and mutual aid facilities to receive groceries, money, and medicine. I was a part of this initiative, and witnessed firsthand peoples’ trials and tribulations. The flood itself wasn’t what necessarily angered them—after a certain point, there’s no sense in shouting at the sky. Rather, it was the government’s response: too slow, too tepid, and too brief. Within about two weeks, you stopped seeing the National Guard. Units dispatched to distribute relief. Within about six weeks you stopped seeing FEMA workers. The message was painfully clear: emergencies have expiration dates. Leaders will care about you to the extent it helps them in elections and photo-ops. Beyond that, you have to fend for yourself.

Families around the nation can soon expect to face the same malignant neglect. Even though the two major federal declarations of emergency spurred by the pandemic end in May, the government has decided to abruptly end its emergency SNAP benefits. It’s already terminated the unemployment benefits and child tax credits it enacted during the pandemic. Only in this day and age can the suspension of aid for one emergency form the basis for a new one: “We are bracing, and our agencies, member food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens are not prepared for what is about to hit them,” Ohio Association of Foodbanks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt told The Washington Post. “This reduction, the end of the public health emergency, could not be coming at a worse time.”

This gets at one of the strangest features of our democracy: its vast array of emergency levers. Things can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. Entire ideologies, crafted over decades, can be dispensed with at the flip of a switch, all just to keep money moving, capital afloat, the social order intact. This sudden recalibration of core social dogmas was on dramatic display in the early days of the pandemic, as well as in the immediate aftermath of the Kentucky River flood. Government was no longer helpless, as we had all been led to believe for decades. Suddenly it existed for you. Here, out of nowhere, were dozens of new legislative measures to expand the welfare state and provide you with medical and nutritional assistance during a public health crisis. And there, all at once, were dozens of helicopters and Humvees to extract you safely from your home to a dry, warm shelter, while the waters still raged through your windows. It was as if the baroque system of neoliberal competition for artificially scarce social goods had been temporarily suspended. For a brief moment, poor people actually deserved food, health care, shelter. Any possible future could suddenly come rushing through the breach.

But now we see that ending an emergency is apparently just as easy as activating an emergency response. This in turn induces a kind of ideological whiplash, where a freshly displaced population is forced to measure the gaping chasm between their current realities and what could be, and thus try to square that distance without completely going insane. It’s the unreality we all now live in, the one that was seemingly stochastic and geographically determined before the pandemic, but became universal after it: You both do and do not live in a constant state of emergency. Trains derail at a dizzying pace; fires burn up homes; floods wash out neighborhoods; prisons and jails pop up like weeds; pestilence runs wild through hospital wards—when does the emergency begin, and when does it end? Who even gets to decide something like that? One person in line outside the Hazel Green Food Project, named Courtney Stone, summed it all up with regionally characteristic brevity: “How can you give something then take it away?”

At times like this, I’m reminded of an absolutely macabre spectacle I witnessed during last year’s flood recovery. It was a late summer evening in Neon, Ky. The town had been hit so hard by floodwaters that it had been reduced to a more-or-less primitive form of government: City Hall had relocated to a pop-up tent in a parking lot, while armed guards policed the entrances and exits to the village. In the midst of this emergency, a good Samaritan had driven down from Lexington and dropped off hundreds of food boxes to the makeshift new City Hall, to be distributed to Neon’s now homeless and foodless residents.

After some hurried consultation, various officials and volunteers began handing out the food. The National Guard, meanwhile, just stood there and watched. Eventually one of these soldiers, a young man clad head to toe in fatigues and protective gear like he was fresh out of Afghanistan, walked over, and asked the volunteers, “What do you want us to do?” A woman shoved some boxes in his chest like it was obvious. Hand them out. The young man looked confused, like she’d spoken in Greek. Hand them out? Unsure of what exactly this meant, this young emissary of the government stumbled off into the sunset, still holding his boxes as he made his way through the teeming masses of people who needed his food, looking like a young Don Quixote in search of… what? We can only hope he found it.

That’s the only proper image for what the government means by this term emergency. Sure, they’ll show up. They’ll make endless meaningless gestures toward a bright future. They may finally get off their asses and pass some temporary legislation, so that they can roll it back later. Hell, they may even drink your town’s water, to “prove” that it’s safe to drink.

But show them actual suffering—evidence of people starving, of people without shelter and health care—-and they’ll just stammer the old clichés. That’s exactly what Kentucky’s Republican agriculture commissioner, Ryan Quarles, did; after he incautiously admitted to The Washington Post, “There is no excuse for a state that produces so much food to have any Kentuckian go to bed hungry,” he doubled down on the ghoulish austerian mandate to jettison pandemic-era SNAP benefits.

The people waiting in line at the Hazel Green Food Pantry know all too well what this means for the rest the nation. Just listen to what they’re saying: They’re going to starve us out. Long before anyone else in our pandemic-ravaged social order, they have discovered the unspoken truth of our era: that, at the end of the day, all we have is each other. That no amount of posturing or temporary suspensions of reality on the part of government and industry will deliver hope for a new day. That, unless we look out for each other, we will all soon be on the chopping block. And that brings us back to the image of the crossroads. As Nicky Stacy, the director of the Hazel Green Food Project, points out: “We’re raised to take care of people and that’s what we’re doing. But I feel like it shouldn’t have to be like this. There has to be a better way.”

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