“Open everything!” or “Stay at Home:” The Partisan Divide in Perceptions of the Pandemic

When a contagious disease breaks out in a city, the most certain means of preventing it from becoming epidemic, or from spreading, is to prohibit all intercourse between the sound and the infected.
–Dr. William Currie, 1794

We are obviously in a unique time. No school, no sports, no conferences, at least for the foreseeable future. The Olympics have been postponed. All of this, of course, is to hopefully reduce the number exposed and flatten the curve.

Even with “shelter at home” and other social distancing measures, more than 2.7 million cases have been identified with over 191,231 deaths–49,963 in the United States. Last Sunday, The Boston Globe had 16 pages of obituaries. Similarly, the New York Times series “Those We’ve Lost,” is tragically demonstrating just how many people, across age, gender, race, and occupation, have died from COVID-19. Heroic health professionals tearfully describe exhausted efforts to keep patients alive and the devastating last moments with others. Earlier this month, a woman on ventilator gave birth. The stories of sorrow and loss, paired with hope and triumph, are abundant.

Or at least I thought so.

Last week’s protests and the continued push to lift restrictions indicate a rising vocal minority that seem to exist in another reality. Maura Judkis makes a solid comparison in this Washington Post article between the protesters and zombie images in pop culture. Hundreds of people gathered in multiple states demanding that businesses. More terrifying than this request (and the crowd itself) were the barrage of signs: “Fear is the real virus!” “#FakeCrisis,” “COVID-19 is a lie,” and “I want a haircut.”

These crowds of anti-science extremists were backed by Trump, through his tweets of “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” and produced results. The governors of Florida, Georgia, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and a few other states declared their intentions to lift of “stay-at-home” orders and, in varying degrees, allow businesses, parks, and churches to open.

Ensuing debates following these announcements have demonstrated the chasm between the two sides. Within a local Facebook group, a single thread erupted into dozens of comments both for and against reopening. Different online communities had similar polarized conversations, in which the remarks are not so much focused on restrictions. Rather, the central question that fundamentally drives these discussions is do you perceive the virus as a threat?

It’s not surprising that there are individuals who dismiss science or grossly distort it to support their own beliefs. This type of group predates vaccination, drawing from the arguments of staunch anti-inoculators James Franklin and Dr. William Douglass in 1721. However, it doesn’t seem to be the anti-vaxxers this time.

This is a different group, with the American “disease perception” division occurring along party lines–a phenomenon recognized early in the coronavirus pandemic (and well-known, as anyone reading this can attest). Our fragmented, numerous media options have further widened the gap between the two groups, as COVID-19 coverage has differed significantly by media outlet. Most individuals primarily seek out news sources and social media networks that fit with their partisan biases and beliefs. It is likely then that many people are not getting the full story.

So how can these two diverging groups come together for a unified perception of the pandemic? Truly unified is probably unrealistic so let’s take it up a level. How do you convince people that they are at risk? The answer, unfortunately, is that we can’t, unless we have a). more coverage across media outlets and platforms that humanize those who died from COVID-19 and b). an eruption of cases so prevalent that every person is personally and directly affected (as currently experienced in New York, New Jersey, and other areas with high numbers). If people continue to act as recklessly as last week’s protesters, it may not be long before everyone will heed Dr. Currie’s advice from 1794.