In March, the world celebrated the second anniversary of the declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic. The past two years have featured a series of tumultuous social and political events that have contributed to polarization and the continued spread of misinformation, which has prevented the nation – and the world – from fully recovering.
Because the battle against Covid is not just about health care, some experts say exiting the pandemic requires breaking down partisan barriers and stopping the spread of misinformation.
Politicization of science
The United States, despite making up just 4% of the world’s population, has been the site of 25% of Covid-19 cases throughout the pandemic. This disproportionate rate of infections can be attributed to various factors, but one of the main causes stems from the politicization of related science, both at the start of the pandemic and in the months that followed.
Vaccines have been at the center of polarizing debates for years, despite mounting empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness. This, along with suspicion surrounding mask mandates and even the reality of the pandemic, all contribute to a wider tendency to deny the merits of scientific findings.
So how did these deviations occur and how did they reach the deadly levels we have seen in recent years?
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For starters, stressful situations like a pandemic can lead to predispositions to denial, rationalism, and confirmation bias as a defense mechanism against confronting the devastating realities that exist in the moment.
“Denial is a way for people to defend themselves against anxiety,” explained Mark Whitmore, an associate professor at Kent State University who has studied the spread of misinformation, in an interview with CNN. A defense mechanism “is simply to deny the existence of the threatening source. In this case, you would simply say, “Well, the epidemic is a hoax”. It doesn’t really exist.
Under such conditions, public opinion is sensitive to polarized messages, according to Nina Ashford, federal government director and assistant clinical professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.
“We have seen more blatant forms of politicization [of science] have happened in the past two years of the pandemic,” she said. “This undermining of the scientific process has impacted public confidence in vaccines, public health in general, medicine…and these tend to run along partisan lines.”
At the onset of the outbreak in the United States in early 2020, President Donald Trump downplayed the severity of the disease, with many Republican leaders quick to follow his lead. Even now that the disproportionate vulnerability of unvaccinated populations has been demonstrated, some media outlets have continued to spread misinformation about preventative measures and the basic science behind pandemic policy implementation. Along with sowing general mistrust of government, Ashford says, “one of the greatest threats to public health resulting from this pandemic is misinformation and misinformation.”
Even with the sea change in policy since Joe Biden became president, “there has been so much damage in the previous years that much of this distrust and misinformation that has been seeded from the highest levels of government have spread…even where people question the credibility of the CDC,” she said.
Individuals and communities across the United States are feeling the effects of these partisan divisions: Covid-19 death tolls in red states soared compared to their blue counterparts after vaccines became available, as many Republicans remained reluctant to get vaccinated. While the death rate has fallen, the virus still poses a particularly dangerous risk to vulnerable populations, including low-income people, multi-family households, essential workers and immunocompromised people.
Solutions require common ground
Experts believe that continued efforts to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 must involve multi-faceted approaches, focusing on common goals of preserving the general well-being and social well-being of our families, friends and communities.
“Initially Republicans and Democrats tend to want the same outcomes, we just have very different processes to get there. … Ultimately people want to raise families and live good lives in safe environments” , said Ashford, who argues that bipartisan approaches to public health issues will ultimately be the “best way forward for our democracy.”
In order to combat the spread of misinformation, Ashford stressed the urgency “to have conversations as a nation about how we consume information, how we think about and critically analyze that information.”
Ultimately, “the beauty of our democracy is that we had these two different points of view and we know that diversity of thought is a good thing. No one or group holds the answer, so I’d like to see us as a nation get to where we can see our differences as strengths and understand what that common ground looks like.
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