The other morning I ate cake for breakfast. We had run out of almost everything else. Like so many during this time of physical distancing, we have tried to minimize our trips to the grocery and make do with what we have. We’ve learned we can go about two weeks, but by the end of it we’re having cake for breakfast. Eggs, bread, and milk are long gone.
The cake was leftover from my birthday, which we celebrated by watching a movie at home. My family let me do the choosing, knowing it would result in a 1930s screwball comedy. It did, and we all sat down to watch Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. The film is visually funny, all side-eyes and pratfalls, but it also features some of my favorite dialogue. One scene sounded as if it was written for this moment. When entertaining the possibility of making up with his sweetheart, Grant tries to explain. “So, as long as I’m different,” he says, “don’t you think that, well, maybe things could be the same again? Only a little different?”
We laughed at the lines and scraped the icing off our plates, wondering how different things had become and how they might ever be the same again. In the days since, I’ve begun to hope that maybe things won’t be the same. The pandemic has changed my appetite. I’m not sure cake will be enough.
What I’m hungry for is health care for all. Yet too many of our politicians seem uninterested in the well-being of South Carolinians. They’d rather just let us eat cake. That sentiment, of course, is attributed to Marie Antoinette, an allusion to her aloofness to the suffering of others. When told that people did not even have bread to eat, the French royal reportedly suggested that they eat cake instead, oblivious to the fact that they didn’t have that either. Historians have argued about who really said it, but what interests me is how our Republican-led state government has rendered it in a local vernacular. For years now, they have refused Medicaid expansion, which would provide health care coverage to upwards of 200,000 South Carolinians who could use it. Last week, when he was asked about the need to expand health care coverage during this pandemic, Gov. McMaster’s spokesperson Brian Symmes said this wasn’t the time to talk about it. Marie Antoinette would be proud.
For too long our elected officials have neglected public health, especially that of poor and working people, and people of color. After just over a month of COVID-19, we have learned of its disproportionate impact on African Americans. According to the latest data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, while African Americans account for 27 percent of our state population, they comprise 56 percent of our deaths so far. The numbers are even worse in Illinois, Louisiana, and Michigan. The racism that has been baked into the American experiment from the beginning continues to manifest itself on a daily basis. The virus’ harms simply follow the pattern. Yet rather than addressing the glaring racial injustice or the desperate public health need, too many of our state politicians are content to leave things as they are, withholding Medicaid, and offering only crumbs instead.
It’s a shameful situation, but it need not be a silent one. While we’re all home making do with what we have, contact officials and let them know what will no longer do. It will no longer do to keep refusing federal money to expand Medicaid coverage that could help hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians. It will no longer do to continue playing partisan politics with people’s health and well-being. It will no longer do to maintain a “let them eat cake” attitude when so many people are suffering. Let your representatives know how you feel by calling, e-mailing, or sending a handwritten note. I think I’ll try a combination of the three, though the last will be my favorite. Walking to the mailbox is a nice way to get out of the house these days. Besides, when I lick the envelope, it kind of tastes like icing.
Jeremy Rutledge is a senior minister at Circular Church.