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  • Richard Byrne

FLAMINGO: COVID-19 & the Attack on Rebekah Jones

Sometimes drama can tell a news story better than journalism.

That is why I wrote Flamingo. It's a 10-minute monologue about how Florida botched its COVID-19 response from the beginning. Before the beginning, even. And has kept right on allowing the pandemic to run rampant.

Journalists have done an amazing job of covering the numbers. The inadequacy of response at every level of government. The massive cuts to public health and questionable hires that left states woefully unprepared. And the efforts to "juke the stats" or bury the numbers that have led brave whistleblowers such as Rebekah Jones to try and get the truth out to the public. And why those who are culpable for the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus now attempt to bury truth tellers such as Rebekah Jones along with the truth.

But the flood of even the best news stories can numb us. And in the series of pandemic monologues I have been writing over the past few months, that's why I wanted to address government response in the pandemic's earliest days. Why were we so unprepared? And why were states, literally left to their own devices by a malicious and pro-COVID-19 White House. completely unequipped to protect their citizens?

So I did my research. And in finding that Florida's COVID-19 response was essentially a case of self-sabotage, I crafted a character named Bonnie who found herself at the center of it all. Unwittingly.

Flamingo focuses tightly on complicity. How little things -- such as being good at collections, or being a steely enough middle manager to make the drastic cuts desired by politicians happen -- put an average person in the position of helping to demolish public health. How private venality and public malice and incompetence are intertwined. How a person just being good at doing bad things can wreak so much damage. And have a reward structure and belief system in place that insulates them from feeling any remorse or regret.

The story of Rebekah Jones was strongly in my mind as I wrote Flamingo in September. I relied on accounts publsihed in May 2020, when her brave insistence that data should be reported accurately cost Jones her job -- and the shameful behavior of Florida authorities to her principled stance.

Nevertheless, Rebekah Jones persisted. She took her commitment to disseminating accurate data private. And Ron DeSantis' malignant crew of COVID-19 deniers and spread-enablers came after her again in a highly-publicized raid on her home based on a dodgy warrant.

Now, having combed through Jones' electronics and not finding what they alleged her to have, Florida officials are now concocting a new case against her. They won't say what it is. But they are demanding that she turn herself in. (Jones says she will do so today.)

I am eager to set Flamingo in this context because the stakes are so high. Bonnie -- the protagonist of Flamingo -- and Rebekah Jones are 180 degrees apart. Bonnie is complicit in suppressing the same truths that Rebekah Jones is sacrificing her health, happiness and freedom to affirm. Bonnie is clear about the distinction, as she sees it.

I didn’t “blow the whistle.” Didn’t snitch. Nope. Not like that girl with the data. Look what happened to her. They dumped her garbage in the street. So everyone could see it. Keep your trash in the can until the truck comes to pick it up and carry it away. I knew there was severance. I knew I’d be OK. I didn’t do anything wrong.

I wrote Flamingo because it's hard to understand the process of complicity through news accounts. The desensitization to reality and one's own conduct that it requires to be effective. The journalistic world that is so (necessarily, at times) reliant upon the formula of "he said/she said" never settles long enough on what "she said" to anatomize it. See what makes it tick.

Drama can do that. And that's why it's as essential to our moment as news accounts.

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