Politicization and Polarization of COVID-19

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You stay completely apolitical and non-ideological. I’m a scientist and I’m a physician. And that’s it.” 

Anthony Fauci, the scientist-turned-public health activist who has run the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 36 years, shared his wisdom on how to function in a highly politicized and polarized nation. Fauci has worked with both political parties in six administrations to face public health crises caused by diverse pathogens including HIV, SARS, avian and swine influenzas, Zika and Ebola [3]. He has had to adapt throughout his career, first from a conventional bench scientist to a public health activist. But perhaps his greatest battle has been with the novel coronavirus and political entanglements.

Politicians and the media amplify politicization and polarization of COVID-19, which influence the public, exacerbating the public health emergency and partisan divides. Even though Fauci has the approval of 78% of Americans for his high pressure position of advising President Trump on the government’s response to the pandemic and just 7% disapproval, he is not immune to critics. On right wing social media and talk radio, Fauci is routinely accused of being a “closet lefty” who overestimates the consequences of COVID-19 [3]. Even a scientist who swears by repeatable and testable facts can be molded to the political games of our times.

Politicization can be measured by the degree that politicians are mentioned in the context of another issue. Hart, Chinn and Soroka analyzed the degree to which newspaper and network news coverage of COVID-19 was politicized from March to May. They found that politicization significantly increased between March 6 and 13 and stayed elevated throughout the study period [2]. Using dictionary and unsupervised machine learning, they found that scientists were mentioned more than politicians. Compared to global warming news coverage—another highly politicized national issue—COVID-19 was slightly more politicized. Unlike the gradual entry of politics into climate science, the novel coronavirus that has taken the lives of over 200,000 Americans became politicized almost immediately [2].

The researchers also found that “both newspaper and network news coverage are highly polarized.” Polarization is the extent of division in political attitudes and can be measured by how discussion varies based on the presence of representatives of different political parties. The highly polarized coverage of COVID-19—primarily driven by conflict between the federal and state responses—has muddled the communication of accurate science [2]. 

In conjunction, politicization and polarization undermine the importance of expert objective knowledge and lead people to act based on their political affiliation rather than truth. Conflicting information broadcasted by political figures influences public attitudes and behavior. Indeed, members of Congress quickly polarized along party lines at the start of the pandemic. Democrats started discussing COVID-19 earlier and more frequently and tended to emphasize affected workers while Republicans focused more on the consequences of coronavirus-related restrictions [1]. The lack of a political consensus contributed to a lack of a unified and strong response to the pandemic.

This divided response was also observed in the general public. Reported by the Pew Research Center on April 2, 78% of Democrats and left-leaning individuals responded that the outbreak was a major threat to the US population as a whole compared to only 52% of Republicans and right-leaning survey participants. Based on their political parties, respondents also differed in their opinion on Trump’s response to the outbreak and the long-term economic impact of the outbreak. Notably, more Republicans said that people across the country were overreacting (39%) as opposed to not taking the safety measures seriously enough (31%). Democrats, however, thought that people were not taking the pandemic seriously enough [4]. These perceptions have behavioral consequences, such as compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines [1]. There are, fortunately, points of agreement among all Americans regardless of political party affiliation. The majority of Democrats and Republicans agree that it has been necessary to close K-12 schools [4]. Most Americans also believe that public health officials have been doing an excellent or good job despite sharing experiences with unemployment. 

The points of agreement between partisans underscores the devastating effects of COVID-19. If we can depoliticize and depolarize public health and return to Fauci’s ideals of staying apolitical and non-ideological, perhaps we can coalesce a victory against prolonged sickness and isolation. Now is the time for a multilateral fight for life.

Edited by: Ryan Chang

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