COVID-19 is the first-ever “politicized pandemic” in human history. COVID-19 happened in an era of widespread social media which helped the general population to understand the disease better and faster. However, the public also formulated an opinion about it. The problem was that their opinions were distilled by the information they were exposed to. And a large chunk of the information available was not scrutinized or scientifically proven.
This is a tough situation. On the one hand, we want science to be widely prevalent and accessible to the public. We want people to learn from science and rely on it to make sound judgments. There was a problem. Amidst COVID-19, science took a back seat. The end result was that the greatest pandemic of the 21st Century resulted in hardened opinions.
The following is a table that indicates the divergent views on COVID-19 from either side of the political spectrum. It is almost as If you could identify the political orientation of a person just by asking a few COVID-related questions.
COVID litmus test to identify political slanting:
From the early days of 2020, when COVID-19 first hit the U.S., it was clear that this is going to be politicized. It is interesting to analyze the evolution of politics behind COVID-19. The unknowns and fear about this new disease forced individuals to retreat to their own camps and familiar soothing rhetoric. The bungling and mixed messages from the government and authority figures accentuated the problem. Rumors spread as if they were information.
In the beginning, we did not have a reliable test to confirm the diagnosis of COVID-19. This meant that early control of the disease by “testing and tracing” was merely guesswork. On top of it, there were no convincing treatments which resulted in a huge burden of morbidity and mortality. Health services were overwhelmed. People were scared. This also resulted in making some people less of a believer in the scientific system.
Politicians and people on the fringe usurped this situation to their own advantage. They filled the void. Rumors became facts. Beliefs solidified around both ends of the political spectrum.
Mixed messages from governmental agencies and health authorities also sowed the seeds of distrust. They made the rules as they went. We cannot really fault them for those actions completely. COVID-19 was an unprecedented crisis. In retrospect, a well-oiled and experienced crisis intervention team might have been able to weaken the blow a bit. No one could have imagined the extent of the whole problem in January 2020 when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the U.S.
Directions about the mask use was a prime example. I remember pulling at a pharmacy counter in March and the teller who knows me as a doctor asking me point blank- Are masks going to help? Deep inside, someone told me — it will, how can it be not? I was worried about her at the counter exposing herself to this deadly virus the whole day. But official guidelines at that time were against the routine use of masks. I answered tentatively, “Maybe … who knows? I don’t know.”
The CDC initially recommended against the use of masks by the general public. They later came out and said the reason for this decision was the fear of potential non-availability of masks to the health care personnel. The intention of this misstatement was laudable, but their credibility was seriously eroded.
The deepening political polarization in the U.S. might have created a perfect milieu for these divisions to surface. In early 2020, we were going through a tumultuous presidency with a contentious election on the horizon.
Going forward, how do we overcome these difficulties? Or, will we be able to overcome these rifts at any time in the future at all? A thorough understanding of the disease, which leads to cure and prevention, will help in regaining the trust of people in science. Clear messaging and investments in scientific research and public health measures will help to reclaim the public’s confidence. Political fault lines may be here to stay, but preventing the spread of rumors on social media will help.
P. Dileep Kumar is a hospitalist.
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