Toxic politicization of COVID in US has global ramifications – analysis


A supporter of U.S. Donald Trump holds a sign as she protests against the state-mandated restrictions during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Diego (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

Whereas globally many on the self-defined Right are slightly more inclined to favor fewer COVID restrictions, in the US the difference is massive.

A Pew Research Center survey released in late July revealed that people with self-defined right-leaning views tended to also favor fewer COVID restrictions. Titled “Ideological right more likely to think there should have been fewer COVID-19 restrictions,” the survey reveals what many of us have felt throughout the pandemic.
The narratives people are parroting are not just about “public health” but are weighed down by toxic, often extreme, political views. This is part of the partisan polarization in the United States but it also affects the world because even as the US declines in global power, its media, big tech companies and narratives continue to influence the globe.
Americans sometimes talk about “American exceptionalism,” the trends that set the US apart from Europe and also from Latin America and other regions: A more religious and libertarian country, with democratic and free market capitalist underpinnings.
But this exceptionalism has also led to exceptional extremism. In recent years, everything has become deeply political, including foreign policy and now, responses to the pandemic. The survey showed that whereas globally many on the self-defined Right are slightly more inclined to favor fewer COVID restrictions, in the US the difference is massive. Whereas only 7% of those on the “Left” said they wanted fewer restrictions, 52% on the Right favored them.  In Canada, by contrast, 21% on the Right wanted fewer restrictions, while 9% on the Left did. In South Korea the difference was 11% on the Left and 22% on the Right.
What we see from this is that basically, no other large democratic country has such partisan views on the pandemic. We can see this online with the anger and shrill behavior of people when it comes to anything about COVID. This is partly because Americans have been fed extreme views from their own officials, rather than the more cautious, pragmatic and historically even-keel approach of countries in Asia or Europe.
TAKE FOR instance how masks became politicized in the US. On March 2, 2020, CNN said that “panic over the novel coronavirus is hitting a fever pitch in the US. And despite repeated pleas from health officials not to purchase them, Americans can’t stop snatching up masks.” In large bold writing, CNN said “Americans don’t need masks. They buy them because they’re scared.”
Actually, it turns out they were buying them for good reason and varying degrees of mask mandates were soon in force. But CNN said at the time “to be clear once again, Americans don’t need masks. The CDC says that healthy people in the US shouldn’t wear them because they won’t protect them from the novel coronavirus. In fact, warns US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, face masks might actually increase your risk of infection if they aren’t worn properly.”
The tragedy of major media telling people they were wrong to be scared of COVID in March 2020, when they had good reason to be worried, is that many Americans stopped trusting what they were being told.
By January 2021, White House advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci was encouraging double masking. “So if you have a physical covering with one layer [and] you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” Fauci told CNBC. “That’s the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95.”
Researchers had now concluded that wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask provides maximal protection, because the surgical mask acts as a filter and the cloth adds an additional layer and helps with fit, CNBC reported. Unfortunately, Fauci had become a target of right-wing anger by this time, meaning that the changing guidance was leading half of America to disregard most COVID restrictions because they felt they had either been misled or were being politically manipulated.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Dr Anthony Fauci discuss the Trump administration's guidelines for ''Opening Up America Again'' during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 16, 2020. (credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Dr Anthony Fauci discuss the Trump administration’s guidelines for ”Opening Up America Again” during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 16, 2020. (credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
THE POLITICIZATION of the pandemic in the US, from a health issue to one that candidates now run on, has dangerous ramifications because it means that if one candidate urges one health response, the other may reject it based solely on partisanship, rather than common sense. No discussion can be had about masks, vaccines, distances, schools or other issues related to the pandemic, without the politics coming first.
Take for instance a recent article at CNN describing how US President Joe Biden’s political fortunes in the mid-term elections could be harmed by the wave of “Delta” variant that is sweeping the US.
“A pandemic that stretches through another grim winter and beyond risks slowing the economic recovery on which Biden is relying for a strong performance next year,” the article says. “It could demoralize the public and trigger the kind of sour mood among the electorate that always spells danger for incumbents.”
That sounds like what really matters now is not so much the pandemic, but rather how to make it work politically. That’s not the kind of article we are seeing in most other democracies. There are exceptions, such as Australia.
The article quoted above claimed that “the latest surge of the virus, powered by the more infectious Delta variant, was able to take hold because Americans in more conservative, southern states – deeply skeptical of government advice and science – declined in larger numbers than their more liberal compatriots to get vaccinated.”
First of all, there is no evidence that Delta “was able to take hold” because of “conservative” Americans. The claim in the US that the pandemic is now largely a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” has been challenged by the fact that in countries with higher vaccination rates, such as Israel, there are large numbers of cases of COVID. By mid-August, 98% of US residents lived in areas with high or substantial community spread.
That means it’s too simple to say that COVID is only a problem in some states due to the political leanings of their residents. And if one simply disregards the pandemic as affecting one’s political enemies, that will come at a political cost as well as in relation to the unity necessary to fight the pandemic. But the US is so divided that this may not be fixed.
THE LARGER problem, as sketched out in US news reports, is that battles over what constitutes scientific certainty are important in the public discussion. There is also a breakdown in the gathering of basic data in the US, from data on so-called “breakthrough” cases where vaccinated people get COVID, to discussions about drug treatments. The FDA in the US, in the probably focus-grouped catch phrasing, told people “you’re not a horse” to discourage them from taking Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug.
The problem is that mocking people for their interest in a “cure” for COVID by telling them they aren’t livestock may play well in news headlines, but it’s unclear if it convinces the skeptical. Israeli media, including The Jerusalem Post, have reported on studies in Israel that “shows Ivermectin reduces the disease’s duration.” More research is clearly needed, but Israel wasn’t testing it on horses and livestock. Yet, if you post online about the news headlines in Israel, the posts may be flagged for being misleading.
This means that large US tech companies, likely in coordination with the WHO and American officials, have sought to flag basically anything online even tangentially related to the pandemic. Some posts may be flagged as misleading if they have key words, but others will simply receive a note directing the reader to go to the WHO for more information on things like vaccines.
This means that billions of people all over the world, many of whom are posting totally innocuous things that aren’t even for or against vaccines, are having their posts clogged up with this bureaucratic tagging that no other types of health posts are subjected to.
For instance, posts about abortion or even other procedures or medical treatments, don’t get a redirect to the WHO. It is entirely because of the debate in the US that the entire world is subjected to this, as if everyone needs to be told that the WHO is their sole provider of information on things.
Many countries have very good public health systems and have been ahead of the curve since the beginning on things like masks. Following WHO guidance on masks, for instance, would not have been helpful in early 2020 when it was not advising people to wear them. Yet in South Korea and many countries that have previous experience with pandemics, masks were normal.
An educated populace with a competent government that doesn’t politicize health will often do better than one that does and one that encourages ignorance among the population and relies on catch phrases.
THE US has gone down a dangerous and toxic road relating to the pandemic. This has now meant that even professionals, such as doctors, are being politicized. That’s the last thing a country needs.
The LA Times had an article recently that said “as a doctor in a COVID unit, I’m running out of compassion for the unvaccinated.” What if the “unvaccinated” person who is brought in is an undocumented migrant who has just come across the border? Do we want our health professionals deciding that person deserves less “compassion” because they weren’t vaccinated? Afghans fleeing the Taliban now need a lecture from American doctors on how they deserve less “compassion” because they aren’t vaccinated?
Doctors should have compassion for patients, not a judging eye assuming that a person injured in a shooting is a “thug” or that an unvaccinated individual is somehow at fault for getting sick. Only in the United States do major newspapers print op-eds by doctors who claim to not have compassion for people. This is fed by partisan claims that often mislead the public about what is going on.
Occupy Democrats, a grassroots political organization dedicated to helping progressive Democrats, tweeted on August 23 that “75 Florida doctors send Governor DeSantis a bold message by walking out in protest after their hospital is flooded with unvaccinated Trumpers who caught COVID, leaving them exhausted and with no more beds nor ventilators.”
The political argument here is that “Trumpers” are the ones getting “COVID,” a toxic mix which turns one’s political enemies into disease carriers, a concept that is not that far off from how totalitarian movements tend to compare political enemies to a health problem in the body politic.
IT TURNS out that the tweet was misleading. According to local reports, South Florida doctors had “stepped outside their hospitals and offices to stand together and encourage the community to get vaccinated.” They said it was not a political issue. Their message was a positive one, but for partisans it became about “Trumpers.”
Occupy Democrats went on to urge that “overfilled Florida hospitals should start sending unvaccinated Trump supporters who catch COVID straight to Ron DeathSantis’ Governor’s mansion…RT IF YOU THINK THAT’S A GREAT IDEA!” The tweet had changed the name of the governor from “DeSantis” to “DeathSantis.”
The more the US turns COVID into a political issue, the worse things will get for those abroad who rely on a Washington that is stable and which projects sound, pragmatic decision making rather than chaos. This is because basic issues are being politicized across the board relating to the pandemic.
Reasonable questions about whether COVID may have leaked from a lab, which should have been investigated early on, were silenced by social media giants largely because Trump was accused of pushing this theory. By May 2021, the US and intelligence communities were now shifting to look more seriously at the “lab leak” theory. Major media noted that “anti-Trump sentiment fueled dismissal of lab leak theory.”
US officials have often urged people to follow the science, but when scientific inquiry is dismissed because of politics it makes it difficult to follow. Yet, throughout the pandemic, this has loomed large and the public has often been either misled, or been divided as to the best course of action. The result has been a toxic politicization that affects the world and has major ramifications for the United States.