What makes the coronavirus so political?

Carmen Forman The Oklahoman
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally June 20 at the BOK Center in Tulsa. Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman

Imagine, if you will, Gov. Kevin Stitt catches a cold.

He takes a few days off from his gubernatorial duties to rest and drink plenty of fluids — what could be more normal than that?

But in 2020, reality is far from normal.

Stitt announced Wednesday he had contracted the highly contagious novel coronavirus, joining more than 25,000 Oklahomans who have caught the virus.

The governor’s diagnosis is just the latest in a series of events that show how the current public health crisis has become a political firestorm raging across America.

Some politicians and health professionals took the opportunity to call on Stitt to implement a statewide mask mandate, which he has shunned.

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews drew backlash from the head of the state’s Republican Party when she said, “I am truly sorry that our governor did not take the necessary precautions to protect himself and his family from this potentially fatal illness.”

Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman David McLain criticized Andrews for “a cheap political statement not grounded in fact.”

Because Stitt, a political figure, has been leading the state’s response to the coronavirus, what he does or does not do to curb the virus becomes politicized.

The same is true at the national level where the coronavirus pandemic has become entwined with President Donald Trump’s re-election bid.

In 2020, seemingly everything is political

The short answer of why the coronavirus has become politicized is because 2020 is a presidential election year.

And Trump has capitalized on the controversy surrounding the virus as he seeks re-election, said James Davenport, a political science professor at Rose State College.

Whether it’s using his coronavirus news conferences to slam Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden or mocking face masks that public health experts have recommended to reduce the spread of the virus, Trump’s response to the pandemic has widened the chasm that divides Americans.

The coronavirus emerged at a time when the U.S. is deeply polarized and many formerly apolitical things have become politicized.

In recent months, face masks, voting by mail, the immunosuppressant drug hydroxychloroquine and Goya food products have all become politicized because they have either been touted or criticized by Trump.

“It’s hard when we have aligned ourselves politically, and now we see even this type of public health issue only through red and blue lenses,” Davenport said.

Enter face masks

In a highly polarized America, face masks have emerged as the political kindling that no one could have predicted.

Despite health experts insisting the cloth face coverings aren’t political, often a person’s view of masks is tied to how political figures like Trump, Biden or Stitt view them.

A large portion of Americans are resistant to masks because they distrust government mandates. In Oklahoma, that has become evident as Norman, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Stillwater have all adopted mask mandates for public places.

Ask Dr. David Chansolme, the medical director of infection prevention at Integris Health, what makes the coronavirus so political, and he is hesitant to wade into a political debate.

He does, however, advocate for wearing a mask to curb the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know about the political stuff,” he said. “All I know about is the science, and I know that wearing a mask makes a difference.”

The media plays a role

How people consume information about the coronavirus plays into why it is so political.

The media has failed to clearly explain the evolving science behind the coronavirus, Davenport said.

He pointed to a widely reported study from the Imperial College of London that said as many as 2.2 million Americans could die from the coronavirus.

The eye-popping number was reported by many news outlets. But what was less clear in most reporting was that projected death toll was if the U.S. took no action to mitigate the spread of the virus, which was never going to be the case, Davenport said.

Now, people look at the coronavirus death toll in U.S., which is around 140,000 people, and they are confused because the media didn’t adequately explain that 2.2 million figure was the worst-case scenario.

Examples like these make Americans skeptical of the media’s reporting on the coronavirus, Davenport said.

“If people knew a little bit more about how these projections are made, the assumptions that are built into them and understand that this is a learning process as we go, there would be a little bit less skepticism when experts are speaking on this issue,” he said.

The media also tends to highlight conflicts, in part, because that’s what readers and viewers want, he said.

When Stitt is hesitant to enforce a statewide mask mandate while other governors have done so, it sets up a point of conflict that gets more people to pay attention, Davenport said.

But sometimes that leaves the public health professionals, who know the most about the coronavirus, out in the cold.

“We take cues from the wrong people sometimes,” Davenport said. “Why should we imagine that government officials have any greater knowledge or expertise on certain things than others do? And yet, those are the ones that get the attention and less so the health professionals.”

April polling from Amber Integrated showed Oklahomans’ views of the media’s reporting on the pandemic vary greatly based on their political affiliation.

A poll of 500 likely voters showed 32% of Republicans believe the media has reported accurately on the coronavirus, while 55% of Democrats and 41% of independents trust the accuracy.

Nearly half of Republicans said the media has exaggerated the risk associated with the coronavirus, but only 18% of Democrats and 22% of independents agreed.

The disparity between local media and national media was vast, with local Oklahoma media getting a 71% approval rating and national media getting an approval rating of 49%.

The national media landscape, where consumers are fiercely loyal to national news outlets that confirm their preconceived biases, increases distrust of the media, said Amber Integrated partner and pollster Jackson Lisle.

Viewers who tune into conservative-leaning Fox News are less likely to trust more liberal-leaning outlets like CNN and MSNBC, and vice versa, he said.

It is difficult to politicize local issues, Lisle said.

“Whereas national news media, a lot of times the reporting is on the federal government, whether it be the executive or the legislative branch, and that is inherently politicized,” he said.

Repeating history

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first time a public health emergency has been politicized.

Throughout history, people have looked for a scapegoat when an unexplained health crisis emerges. Sweeping epidemics are often accompanied by prejudice and outright hatred.

When the Black Death swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, Jews across the region were blamed for the epidemic of bubonic plague and persecuted, said Mary Fissell, a Johns Hopkins University professor in the Department of the History of Medicine.

In 17th century England, the English were in a lengthy trade war with the Dutch and blamed a Dutch ship for the emergence of another outbreak of disease.

In the late 19th century, the Chinese were stigmatized when the plague struck Honolulu, which resulted in a mob burning down the city’s Chinatown.

“It is this desperate need to understand something that we haven’t seen the scale of,” Fissell said. “People need a story, they need to be able to tell a story to explain it to themselves, and often, those stories are not rooted in our better selves. They’re rooted in the worst kinds of bias and prejudice.”

Today, Trump and other conservatives have used xenophobic language when referencing the coronavirus, calling it the “kung flu” and the “Chinese virus.”

Fissell also said the pushback against modern-day lockdowns is similar to historical quarantines that led merchants to cry foul when their ships were held in harbors. In both situations, people questioned how an epidemic spreads — leading politics to infiltrate the science that shows a virus is contagious.

“In some ways, the science moves faster than the human soul, and so we’re still the same frail people that we ever were,” she said. “It does feel as though we’re living in a moment in America where the respect for expertise is at an all-time low.”

Asked about the politicization of the coronavirus, OU Medicine Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Douglas Drevets pointed to when the sexually transmitted disease syphilis emerged in 16th century Europe.

The English and French were quick to blame each other, Drevets said.