- More than 790,000 Americas have died from COVID-19 since it first emerged two years ago.
- Experts told Insider that one of the biggest contributors to US COVID-19 outbreaks is partisanship.
- Politicians on both sides of the aisle still blame each other for the pandemic response.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the US for almost two years, but experts told Insider politics have played as much of a role as the virus itself.
“For every single death certificate that has COVID-19 as a primary cause of death, partisanship should be listed as a contributing cause. This pandemic was politicized from day one,” Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a philanthropic foundation working on advancing public health policy, told Insider.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a cluster of patients began experiencing
-like symptoms on December 12, 2019, in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
In the past two years, COVID-19 has infected close to 267 million people, including 49 million in the US alone, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The virus has killed more than 5 million people worldwide, including over 790,000 in the US.
Castrucci, an epidemiologist, said politics have played a huge role in America’s inability to get the pandemic under control, especially as several states push to limit the role of public health officials or fight against public health efforts like vaccines and mask-wearing.
“Politics has indelibly shaped this pandemic from the moment that our former president framed it as lives versus livelihoods, putting public health officials on the side of lives and somehow against livelihoods, which is simply not true. And that has contributed not only to the pandemic but to the open assault on public health officials, the harassment, the ridicule of public health officials. More than 200 [state and local public health officials] have been forced to resign, retire, or have been terminated,” Castrucci said.
Problems with messaging go back to the beginning of the pandemic
Castrucci told Insider one of the contributing factors was the way officials spoke about the coronavirus from the start. He said when officials gave orders with certainty on the virus, it made it easier for people to distrust messaging as more information was learned and advice changed.
“I will honestly admit that there were public health officials at the federal level who spoke with far too great of certainty in the face of a novel virus,” Castrucci said.
That lack of certainty made it easy for misinformation and disinformation to spread. For instance, at the very start of the pandemic in late February and early March 2020, health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Americans they did not need masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus, before switching course a few weeks later.
Fauci said the advice was based on the shortages of masks for healthcare workers who needed that personal protective equipment most, not based on the effectiveness of masks against the virus.
That messaging, however, contributed to the polarization around masks, Castrucci said.
Briony Swire-Thompson, the director of the Psychology of Misinformation Lab at Northeastern University, told Insider the coronavirus pandemic “right off the bat was just primed for misinformation.”
Swire-Thompson, who researches what drives people to believe in misinformation, told Insider falsehoods are more likely to spread when we don’t have all the facts.
“We had nothing, especially in the early days, we really didn’t have anything to counter it with. It doesn’t take much to make up a piece of misinformation and share it online, but it took a really long time for us to even know what we were dealing with. I think right from the beginning, we were on the back foot,” she said.
“It’s a topic that people really do want answers and quick answers about,” she said.
Politicians play a role in addressing and correcting misinformation
Swire-Thompson told Insider that politicians can play an important role in addressing misinformation because correcting it sometimes boils down to trust rather than expertise.
“A politician with very little medical expertise or training in COVID or training in epidemiology can have a much bigger impact on people’s beliefs if they’re perceived to be trustworthy,” she said.
That played a role in what Castrucci said was a public issue being discussed without actual health in mind.
Castrucci told Insider the framing of the coronavirus was one of “lives versus livelihoods, which then fit into what is our basic political divide in this country, individualism versus collectivism.”
He said a recent poll conducted by de Beaumont showed that among those unvaccinated, 79% of respondents said they value personal freedom over community health.
An August USA Today/Ipsos poll also found that while 78% of Democrats said protecting the common good was more important than personal liberties, 62% of Republicans said protecting personal liberty was more important.
“So this was almost never a public health debate. This was almost never a conversation about health. This was a conversation about political ideology,” Castrucci said.
Politicians, however, still point fingers at the opposite party
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have blamed each other for partisanship. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson told Insider that Democrats have “been pushing their agenda when Republicans just kind of want to let people live, but the left won’t let us.”
Johnson blamed Democrats for “draconian shutdowns” and said they refused to focus on medication to treat the symptoms of COVID-19, which he said Republicans were focused on from the beginning.
While he blamed Democrats for partisanship, Johnson opposed shutdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19. He was one of several GOP lawmakers who threatened to block the passage of the government funding bill if Democrats didn’t withdraw funding for President Joe Biden’s mandate that large companies get their employees vaccinated by January.
Stopping the bill would have shut down federal agencies. The senator from Wisconsin has also accused Fauci of overhyping the pandemic.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren blamed Republicans for not signing on to the pandemic relief package last spring.
“We know how bad the partisanship has gotten. And [during] a national emergency [we] probably should be working together. We can’t confirm government officials who need to be in place, we can’t confirm ambassadors who need to be foreign countries representing our interests, including working with local officials on public health issues,” Warren told Insider. “The impact of excessive partisanship on the part of the Republicans is hurting us in every dimension.”
GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw told Insider partisanship around the pandemic stems from the fact that Republicans and Democrats fundamentally view solving issues differently.
However, he blamed Democrats.
“Call me biased but I certainly blame the left. I mean, the side that wants to control more of your life is generally not the good guy. I do think their hatred of Trump and desire to make this a Trump pandemic played into a lot of the problematic policies that occurred and a lot of the partisanship that occurred,” Crenshaw said.
‘Not only are we failing at this pandemic, we have already laid the path towards failure for the next.’
Castrucci told Insider that misinformation and disinformation online is helping solidify people’s viewpoints and further contributing to the polarization around the pandemic.
“It’s coming from internet newsletters, where people are suggesting that there have been many, many more deaths attributable to the vaccine and that disinformation,” Castrucci said. “I think the most important point is this is not been because people are anti-science. That’s an easy explanation. The more complex challenge is that they found scientists who agree with them.”
He added that a lack of attention to public health infrastructure and a belittling of the necessity for robust public health institutions and guidance has also expanded this issue.
“There are 26 states that are actively pursuing or passed legislation, limiting public health authority. So not only are we failing at this pandemic, we have already laid the path towards failure for the next,” he said. “Those are political decisions and that’s what we have to reckon with.”
Castrucci said governors like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who have prohibited mask mandates and sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over cruise restrictions need to understand that public health is not a partisan issue and these efforts erode trust in health officials.
“Public health is not one side of the aisle or the other. It’s the ground on which those very aisles are built …. Health is the foundation of our society. There’s nothing you can do if you are not healthy,” Castrucci said.
Castrucci added that politicizing this issue has meant instead of fighting the virus, “we were debating each other.”
“As people were dying in this country, we debated wearing face masks,” he said.
He said it was unfortunate that despite the toll of the pandemic, the country is still unable to depolarize this issue.
“It is disheartening that the loss of 600,000 plus Americans didn’t get us there,” he said. “I mean, that’s, that’s three football stadiums full of people. That’s 600,000 tables with empty seats and that that loss of American life didn’t unify our country trivializes this loss. That’s what’s really disturbing.”