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The Dangers of Politicizing the Coronavirus

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“It is not often that everyone in the country faces the same towering life-and-death challenge all at once, which is why we should drop the cheap partisan smears and start talking honestly about the greatest threat we have confronted in a generation.”

It is July, and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is back on the front pages. A recent glance at The New York Times’ homepage revealed that “Florida Reports High Number of New Daily Cases,” “Texas Orders Bars Shut,” and “Younger People Account for ‘Disturbing’ Proportion of U.S. Virus Surge.” Beneath these headlines, there were helpful articles with titles like “What are the symptoms of the coronavirus, and what should you do if you have them?” and “Pandemic parenting was already relentless. Then came summer.”

A few weeks ago, the headlines were different: George Floyd had just been killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the country was erupting. Beyond the mass peaceful protests, there was widespread rioting and looting. Senator Tom Cotton wanted to send in the 82nd Airborne, Chris Cuomo demanded to know “where it says that protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful,” and the debate over the riots and the measures to get them under control was as bitter as it was polarized. It seemed like every newspaper homepage, Twitter feed, and Facebook status was about police violence, racism, and the chaos in American streets.

One day, the pandemic was all we could talk about. The next, COVID-19 was in the backgroundan important piece of context and something to bear in mind, sure, but a second-order concern.

This shift in emphasis was jarring in its immediacy and extent. One day, the pandemic was all we could talk about. The next, COVID-19 was in the backgroundan important piece of context and something to bear in mind, sure, but a second-order concern. Perhaps the most striking moment in this mass realignment of priorities was when a group of almost 1,300 public health professionals signed an open letter which expressed concern about “emerging narratives that seemed to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health” and stated, “As public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission.”

This claim was especially strange considering the fact that one of the letter’s recommendations read as follows: “Prepare for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest. Provide increased access to testing and care for people in the affected communities, especially when they or their family members put themselves at risk by attending protests.” In other words, the signatories believed the protests were, in fact, “risky for COVID-19 transmission.”

As COVID-19 cases surge in the United States, it is unclear what effect the protests have had. According to a recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), while it is “possible that the protests caused an increase in the spread of COVID-19 among those who attended,” the overall effect for the cities where protests occurred may have actually been “lower spread of COVID-19 relative to non-protesting cities.” One possible explanation for this outcome is that, as the authors observe, the “effect of the protests on the social distancing behavior of the entire population residing in counties with large urban protests was positive.” More people in these counties may have stayed home because they viewed the protests as dangerous, or due to road and business closures and the perception that the protests posed a higher risk of COVID-19 infection.

However, the NBER paper cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions, pointing out that there could be adverse effects among protest attendees and other consequences that “could only be measured with more granular data that to our knowledge does not exist at present.” Compounding this problem is the fact that the protests coincided with the reopening of many businesses across the country. Additionally, many protesters are young (which means they are less likely to report serious symptoms and go to the hospital, though they could still be spreading the disease without their knowledge), and it is extremely difficult to conduct contact tracing with such large groups of people.

Despite the unsettled data about the impact of the protests on the spread of COVID-19, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently cited them (without evidence) as one of the reasons for the swelling case count. Many on the Right have prepared the ground for claims like this, which President Donald Trump and his supporters are sure to echo in the coming months. When the protests got underway, Fox News host Jesse Waters declared, “If there’s a second wave, it’s on the Left.” But just as Leader McCarthy and Waters have allowed politics to drive their interpretation of the facts, many journalists and public health advocates sympathetic to the protests have been doing the same.

At a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work, businesses are being shuttered every day, and family members have been isolated from one another for months, it is clear that they are not just eager for “consumerism and comfort.”

For example, public health researchers at the Center for American Progress argue that “There is a fundamental difference between the decision of people to protest inequality and injustice and the demands of the president and his supporters that people risk their health and lives in order to return to the ‘normalcy’ of consumerism and comfort.” Again and again, this dismissive attitude has been directed at Americans who are reeling from the devastating economic costs of COVID-19. At a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work, businesses are being shuttered every day, and family members have been isolated from one another for months, it is clear that they are not just eager for “consumerism and comfort.”

This is the sort of language that has fueled a furious backlash among conservatives. Tucker Carlson summarized their argument when he condemned the “flagrant double standard” of politicians who supported the protests: “We sat passively as they destroyed our country’s economy, as they indicted Americans for trying to make a living. And then the…riots started and we learned it was all fake.” He went on to describe the situation as a “ritual humiliation” of Americans who had been locked down for months. But the fact that some public officials contradicted themselves is not evidence of anything more than their own carelessness. A few weeks after Carlson’s segment, COVID-19 cases are exploding in the United States, states are halting their reopening plans, and the country is bracing for a brutal second wave of infections.

COVID-19 has been a disturbing reminder of what happens when conflicting ideologies ram up against a complicated empirical reality. It is easy to build a narrative around whatever ostensible “facts” seem to support it. What are the chances that Carlson is going to run a segment on the counterintuitive findings of the NBER paper that suggest protests may not be a significant factor in the spread of the disease? Why was there such a stark double standard for the anti-lockdown protests that took place in the spring and the George Floyd protests last month? Even if you are more supportive of the second group (as I am), many Americans protesting the lockdowns face severe economic strife that should not be dismissed as mere “consumerism” or selfishness. It is also important to remember that lockdowns have significant health consequences as well, such as the postponement of elective procedures.

In the coming months, we will face countless, wrenching trade-offs of whether or not to reopen a sputtering economy and prevent more infections, whether or not to visit loved ones, whether or not to open schools, and so on. Our conversations about these trade-offs should share the same starting point: that these are immensely difficult issues with no clear answers. But rhetoric about “ritual humiliation,” the selfish desire for “consumerism and comfort,” etc. will make these conversations impossible. It is not often that everyone in the country faces the same towering life-and-death challenge all at once, which is why we should drop the cheap partisan smears and start talking honestly about the greatest threat we have confronted in a generation.

Matt Johnson is a freelance writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including Haaretz, New York Daily News, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, and Quillette.

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