A View on the Coronavirus Crisis from the US Heartland: A Discussion with Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist

On Wednesday, April 29, 2020, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation North America hosted a virtual event entitled “A View on the Coronavirus Crisis from the US Heartland” with Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist. The US state governments have taken on a prominent role in the Coronavirus crisis, as they have been implementing policies to increase access to testing and treatment, to mitigate the spread of the virus, and to handle the economic consequences. Michigan is the 10th largest state in the United States, yet has had the 3rd highest number of deaths from Coronavirus behind New Jersey and New York. Gilchrist plays a crucial role as Lt. Gov. in his state’s response to the public health and economic challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic. His key areas of focus currently include education, small businesses, and racial disparity.

In Michigan, in-person, face-to-face education for K-12 and colleges and universities has moved online. Unfortunately, many students do not have access to the internet or devices at home. The Lt. Gov.’s priority is to secure such devices from Apple, Google, Dell, and Lenovo and from internet service providers in Michigan so that students can continue their studies without interruption.

The Coronavirus crisis has also has greatly impacted small businesses in Michigan, which have seen their operations disrupted. Gilchrist is working to ensure that resources from the federal government, along with state resources, like loans and grants, are reaching these businesses so that they can continue operating.  However, the economy, inextricably linked with public health, is predicated entirely on people’s well-being, safety, and, confidence. Before one can successfully reengage the economy, one has to first massively scale up testing capacity, enhance tracing capabilities, and secure safe isolation opportunities for people who are have been infected or exposed to the virus.

With regard to racial disparity, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist, who’s leading a special task force on this issue, emphasized that the pandemic has not impacted every community in the same way. About 14% of Michigan’s population is African American, yet this group accounts for almost 40% of the deaths in Michigan from Coronavirus so far. A lot of the disparity has to do with individuals living in poverty. Responding to this particular challenge in real time, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist is contacting public health and infectious disease experts, as well as community leaders in the faith, labor, and education sectors to design and recommend actions that can be taken right now to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19 amongst this population.

Federalism vs. States’ Rights

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist maintains that federalism is a good system, but he argues that the lack of a national strategy to respond to the pandemic has led to a failure in some states’ response systems. Michigan, for example, has had to work hard as a state to secure its own supply chain for testing materials. Furthermore, two of the state’s largest auto manufacturing companies, Ford and General Motors, have put car production on hold to manufacture personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and respirators instead.

In the absence of a federal strategy for handling the pandemic, however, there has been unprecedented state-by-state collaboration. The Midwestern states have a lot in common given that manufacturing and agriculture are equally important to their economies. This commonality has led the Lt. Governors of these states to work together across party lines to ensure public safety and public health remain top priorities.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Politics in Michigan

The state of Michigan is key to President Donald Trump’s re-election chances. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by around 10,000 votes, but the state’s democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer won in 2018 by 10%. Although Democrats have built power in Michigan over the last four years, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist speculates that the 2020 presidential election will be close.

The pandemic has also shown that governing and the way that one approaches decision-making matters. Gilchrist believes that the pandemic and politicians’ varied responses to it will have an impact in terms of how Americans think about the role of government and the politicians who serve them in their state and country. In the upcoming presidential election, Gilchrist hopes that voters are going to scrutinize the candidates on how effectively they build teams, seek counsel, and make decisions during this unprecedented time.

Ending on a positive message, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist emphasized that this pandemic should serve as a reminder for us for how important our relationships are with each other and how much we need each other.