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COVID-19 Deepened an Existing Political and Social Divide in the United States

By Dan Payne

The novel COVID-19 virus spread quickly and brought the world to a standstill. It originated in Wuhan, China late 2019 and in early 2020 it had spread over the globe. The pandemic affected the world dramatically, and the United States was no exception. The pandemic forced nations to change and adapt; for the US this adaptation lead to a deepened political divide with fatal consequences.

In January of 2021 the CDC confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the US—someone who had recently returned from Wuhan, China.[1] As of October 28, 2021 there have been 46,668,950 COVID-19 cases in the US with 763,144 resulting deaths.[2] There was a peak in new daily cases in November 2020 through January 2021 with a second wave starting in the summer of 2021.[2] The early response and attitude towards the pandemic by US leaders created the uncertainty and disbelief that still plagues the country today.

In early January the CDC responded to the pandemic by issuing the lowest level travel watch; by the end of January that had been escalated to the highest level.[3] In March many other countries, like Italy, implemented large-scale lockdowns; meanwhile, some US states declared a state of emergency and announced that gatherings should be cancelled for 14 days.[3] On March 13, 2020 President Trump declared a national emergency and Americans were encouraged to radically alter their behavior.[4] After this declaration there was guidance by the CDC but no clear, cohesive federal response, leaving state leaders to response how they saw fit.

The lack of federal regulation is largely due to then-President Trump’s attitude toward the severity of COVID-19 and how effective he believed his initial response was. President Trump constantly downplayed the severity of COVID-19 pandemic by comparing it to the flu, saying that many positive cases were “young people that would heal in a day,” and that the large number of cases was a “good thing” because it showed how much the US had increased testing.[5] These and many other myths were taken as fact by US citizens because they were supported and promoted by political leaders and distributed widely across social media, like unverified and potentially dangerous treatments for COVID-19, the efficiency of masks, and more recently the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.[6]

The first COVID-19 vaccine was approved for Emergency Use Authorization (EAU) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) December 11, 2020. It is an mRNA vaccine that the body uses to make a mimic of the COVID-19 virus proteins, therefore allowing the person’s immune system to react to the virus without altering that person’s genetic material.[7] Again, there was skepticism surrounding the vaccine from both major political parties in the US. The skepticism was largely based in the distrust of science and political games. Leaders were hesitant to show support for the vaccine because it could affect how their voters saw them and thus jeopardize their reelection. This continued the unfortunate cycle of COVID-19 being used as a political playing piece.

Even more unfortunate are the real consequences of the pandemic being used for political fodder. Because of the distrust sown and false information spread by people with political and social influence, many citizens reject common health and safety guidelines which sometimes resulted in them or their loved ones falling ill and or subsequently dying, and relationships between friends and family disintegrating because of the strong, polarizing feelings brought on by conspiracy theories.[8] One of the many consequences has been a low rate in full vaccination of US citizens, with only 60% of the US population being fully vaccinated as of November 16, 2021.[9] Other countries’ vaccine rates far surpass this, such as Italy with 72%, and the United Arab Emirates with the highest rate at 87%.[10] With the vaccine rate this low it seems unlikely that the US will reach herd immunity, however vaccinated people are less at risk of catching COVID-19 or suffering severe symptoms and needing hospitalization if infected.[11]

The division created early in the pandemic continues to this day and seems that it will continue. Although some leaders appeared to revise their initial stance by getting vaccinated before the rest of the nation, though it doesn’t seem to be enough to convince US citizens to do the same—even former President Trump getting vaccinated did not seem to sway those who were skeptical because of what he had said in the past.[12, 13] It seems unlikely that US citizens will change their habits years into this pandemic. However, there are more people getting vaccinated in the US. Although it may be too late to change the minds of many US citizens, perhaps the county will be able to learn from its mistakes to be more successful in the future.

References

  1. A Timeline of COVID-19 Developments in 2020
  2. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/
  3. The First 100 Days of the U.S. Government’s COVID-19 Response
  4. The federal government’s coronavirus response—Public health timeline
  5. Timeline: How Trump Has Downplayed The Coronavirus Pandemic
  6. Eight Persistent COVID-19 Myths and Why People Believe Them
  7. FDA Approves First COVID-19 Vaccine
  8. The casualties of this year's viral conspiracy theories
  9. US Coronavirus vaccine tracker
  10. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations
  11. Herd immunity and COVID-19 (coronavirus): What you need to know
  12. All the U.S. Officials Who Have Received the COVID-19 Vaccine
  13. Trump and his wife received coronavirus vaccine before leaving the White House.



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