Covid Response and Centralization in Dalton, Muskegon, Michigan, USA

To understand the response to Covid is a difficult project for several reasons. One, it has occurred over a long period of time. Two, the response has been inconsistent across both time and place. Three, you have to understand the response at five levels and how those have interacted: township, county, state, national, and international. In this paper I will examine the Covid response using Dalton Township as the centering perspective.

Dalton Township is 35.26 square miles with 9,568 people. Muskegon County is 499.25 square miles with 176,511 people. The state of Michigan is 56,538.9 square miles with 10,050,811 people. The USA is 3,531,905.43 square miles with 331,893,745 people. With the world approaching a population level of 8 billion. (United States Census Bureau, 2021) It's easy to see from these statistics that there is a significant difference in the land area and population numbers effected by decisions at these different levels. Some of the inputs and outputs will therefore be the same at these different levels, e.g. the desired outcome of a healthy population by those with goodwill for humanity. While others will be differentiated, e.g. Dalton Township has neither a police nor military force under its discretionary control or influence.

In January of 2020 the World Health Organization announced a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, then declared a global health emergency, and various travel restrictions began. That's how things began on the international level. In February the US declared a public health emergency. In March the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, President Trump declared it a national emergency in the US and issued travel bans. That's how things started at the national level. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022) Also in March began what would become a massive flood of executive orders from Michigan Governor Whitmer controlling all aspects of daily life and business such as closing all schools, most businesses, regulating prices, banning gatherings, travel, and events, and telling all people to stay in their homes, essentially putting everyone in Michigan on a type of home arrest. Michigan's Disaster Declaration was approved by President Trump in March. (Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, 2021) Whitmer issued 192 executive orders in 2020 alone, plus executive directives, putting the total over 200. There were various additional orders from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. (, 2022) States of emergency were declared at the local levels as well. Such a massive restriction on all freedoms was sold to the public as being necessary to not overwhelm the healthcare system, and that it would be necessary to do such strict restrictions for only 15 days to slow the spread. (, 2020) This was the idea promoted by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Branswell, 2020).

All of this released a massive amount of political struggle at and between every level of organization. There was significant disagreement about what actions were warranted by our level of scientific knowledge (Gupta et. al, 2020). The numbers were such a significant political issue that it appears the source data for numbers, at least throughout the United States, has been permanently and irreparably corrupted. In April of 2020 the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx stated that if anyone dies with Covid, then that's counted as being caused by Covid (, 2020). Smaller political units such as the states followed this national lead. Even deaths from car accidents were counted as Covid deaths. Later, deaths caused by not allowing people to go to hospitals for treatments and care of other health issues that resulted in death were counted as Covid deaths. (Boyle, 2021). With such counting methods the numbers will be much higher than in reality. In other situations the numbers are distorted in the other direction, also for political reasons. Governor Whitmer had issued an executive order in 2020 forcing Covid patients into nursing homes and long-term care facilities. In an audit of this practice it was later found that the resulting deaths were significantly underreported. (Ringler, 2022)

By declaring a state of emergency in Michigan Whitmer was able to give herself extensive powers under three laws. One, article 5 section 1 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution. Two, the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. Three, the 1976 Emergency Management Act. The Emergency Management Act especially gives single control for the governor to issue orders that have the force and effect of law. (Whitmer, 2020) This perfectly meets the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of dictator as "a person granted absolute emergency power." This ability and the reality of the governor single-handedly changing laws on a daily basis created significant instability and had a strong a negative effect on mental health, business and economics, and the smaller governments. For instance, in Michigan there's the Open Meetings Act. This act talks about giving notice for government meetings, not holding secret meetings, and such. The governor was able to, and did, sway this act at will so that sometimes it was illegal to not hold in person meetings, sometimes it was illegal to, and many times it was hard to tell if it was possible or not to hold or to not hold government meetings, and of what type and in what format.

Different approaches were taken by different officials. For instance, Tony Barnes was the Supervisor in Dalton Township when the Covid scare began. He closed the offices down according to the orders by the governor. But, it was hard to tell when you were supposed to go back into session, and when you weren't, or anything really. I was told by employees at the time that there were important functions being ignored, government functions that could not be ignored if society was to continue to operate, and therefore they would sneak in to the office at odd times to accomplish essential tasks, unknown to the Supervisor. After I was elected in November of 2020 I held my first meeting in person outside in December. This was cold and dark. The January meeting I held in person inside. Barnes reported that meeting to the police, who did not break it up, and to the Muskegon County Health Department. I received a letter from the health department urging me to go to online meetings, which I did for a few meetings before bringing the sessions back in person. Once again we're able to see how Covid was able to be used as purely political means for purely political ends. (Dalton Township, 2020, 2021a)

An example of a political struggle at the same level is when the Michigan State Legislature passed Public Act 77 of 2021. This repealed Public Act 302 of 1945, which was one of the laws that Governor Whitmer used to give herself emergency powers. (Senate Fiscal Agency, 2021) After that the Governor had to use slightly less direct routes for her orders, going through other agencies like MIOSHA and the MDHHS to achieve her ends. Which had been happening from early on as well. For instance, in March of 2020 she warned against doctors prescribing hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, and even had the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs issue a warning that such prescriptions would be investigated (Gagliardi and Forrest, 2020).

Both Muskegon County and Dalton Township are examples of resistance by smaller governments against larger government mandates. In August of 2021 Dalton Township passed Resolution 2021-33, Resolution Protecting Citizens from Vaccine Passport Mandates (Dalton Township, 2021b). In September Muskegon County passed a similarly themed resolution called Resolution to Promote General Welfare, which was later rolled back so that the county could receive funds from Medicare (Muskegon County Board of Commissioners, 2021). These are generally considered non-binding resolutions that can be overridden by the powers of the state. Thus to a large extent it can be argued that in the United States local governance is something that is allowed by higher government, and perceived as existing, rather than holding much legal weight other than that given to the local municipalities by the state. There are arguments against this though, which have a strong history in the United States such as noted in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. The idea that an immoral office holder is not acting for the office is known as the private citizen argument and forms the doctrine of the lesser magistrate as used in the Magdeburg Confession from 1550, a significant justification for the Protestant Reformation resistant movements (Witte Jr., 2008). These arguments are sometimes supported by law, but often only if grounding has been given for such decision making authority by the higher power.

As can be seen, one of the most controversial parts of the approach to Covid was the difference between having lockdowns until a vaccine was developed, or to allow the pursuit of treatment options. In the US and in Michigan we've seen that treatment options were not only not pursued, they were discouraged. The drive for a vaccine was pushed heavily. The 15 days to flatten the curve grew into years of restrictions, lockdowns, and limited freedoms. This was devastating to the economy and society in a myriad of ways. By spending trillions of dollars on stimulus packages of all sorts, along with limiting the production and distribution of goods and services, the US has started a surge of inflation that is breaking records and will probably continue to do so (Desilver, 2022). These policies started under Republican President Trump and continued under Democrat President Biden. Four trillion dollars was spent in just two bills, the CARES Act and the ARPA Act. (116th Congress of the USA, 2020; 117th Congress of the USA, 2021) This is just a small portion of what has been expended by governments in the US. Combine this with the direct contradiction of Say's Law in economics, that you have to create products and services to have the wealth to pay for other products and services, and you have a double negative impact on the US economy that may be the worst in its history (Say, 1819).

In addition to the economic damage there has also been psychological and social damage that will effect the society for generations. The negative mental health effects of lockdowns have been shown to be significant (Adams-Prassl, 2022). The CDC has had to move many child development milestones to later ages after the lockdowns (Zubler, 2022). The economic and psychological damages from the responses to Covid have been devastating to humanity.

Many of these policies and activities violate principles of good decentralization. Because of the centralization of power during Covid there was not public discussion and evaluation of key policies before implementation, there was not direct participation of users, there were not good monitoring measures, and there was not accountability (Fuhr, 2011). Four factors can be considered difference making in the effectiveness of governance in organizations: political competition, ability to mobilize resources, methods and skills of public administration, and demands and participation of society (Grindle, 2007). The political competition over the last couple of years has been very high in the township, county, state, and national governments we are here concerned with. Very contentious elections were conducted at every level. So the failures through the Covid response would not seem to be associated with a lack of competition. Massive resources were mobilized in response to Covid. So that also is not a lack. It must be that the answer to these failures lies in the methods and skills of public administration and the demands and participation of society. Two obvious things stick out. The structure of the US and Michigan allowed for immense centralization quickly, and the general fear and submissiveness of the public allowed for that centralization. It seems that it is this combination that created a breakdown in the system.

A large concern in decentralization is fiscal and budget autonomy (Dafflon and Madies, 2009). By providing stimulus from the top levels of government down this has also worked to reduce decentralization, while also creating infighting amongst the lower levels of government. For instance, Dalton Township is getting over 800,000 dollars from ARPA. This is resulting in years of debates among the board about how to allocate the funds. Also, as mentioned before, the County of Muskegon stepped back its resolution about vaccine mandates when threatened with losing some federal funding. By transferring money from one level of government to the other the higher level government is able to direct things to its priorities (Smoke, 2007). Because the politicians are using these measures to give the appearance rather than the substance of decentralization no benefits to the society should be expected. Decentralization is ineffective when used as a political tool or means, and is effective when the focus is on development with general social support and responsible local leaders (Romeo, 2012).

Covid has moved things toward centralization and away from decentralization, which had been the previous trend across many countries for the last few decades, and decentralization had previously been associated heavily with the United States. How such a movement back toward decentralized government can be achieved is difficult, but there are potential options. Context is undervalued and of utmost importance in these complex processes (Smoke, 2014). The United States and Michigan could stop issuing orders and mandates from the top and allow local governments to locally govern. For this to actually be done the state and federal congress would need to pass laws to such effect. Similar to the Michigan congress passing the law to limit the Governor's emergency powers. This could also be implemented fiscally, in that the federal and state government could stop using the giving away of large amounts of money as a political savior image enhancing tool and rather let local funding processes through local taxation fund the local governments, thereby significantly reducing the threat of retaliation through monetary means by the higher government if a disagreement occurs in policy. 

Covid has been a massive trial of many governmental systems that has shown significant weaknesses leading away from decentralized government toward centralized government. Many of the actions taken and decisions made in the township, county, state, and nation have been politically driven with devastating and far-ranging secondary consequences. It can be hoped that because of these things the importance of decentralized government and the necessary laws to protect that structure will gain greater awareness, attention, and implementation.

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