Illustration by Timothy Chiu.

Pandemic Politics: How Partisanship Damaged the U.S. Response to Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a primarily political topic in the United States from its earliest days. Why have we hyper-politicized a virus that has no regard for one’s political affiliation in the damage it causes?

Feb 7, 2022

When I returned to my hometown in rural Northeast Indiana during winter break, I was greeted almost immediately by a billboard that read: “COVID-19 JAB INJURIES - 927,738,” a message sponsored by “Banners4Freedom” and the “Vaccine Police” dissuading viewers from getting a Covid-19 vaccine. Neither of these sponsors provide any real scientific support for their claims about adverse vaccine effects, but given their audience, maybe they don’t need to.
Indiana is in the bottom 15 percent of U.S. states in terms of vaccination rates, with only 53.4 percent of the population being fully vaccinated. And, unsurprisingly, in the last presidential election, 72.4 percent of the county’s voters voted for the Republican Party. [One research study] ( focusing on the politicization of Covid-19 health protective behaviors in the U.S. found that “political conservatism was inversely associated with perceived health risk and adoption of health-protective behaviors over time.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden, said of the mass disparity in vaccination rates, “It’s almost like there’s two Americas”, indirectly referencing the divide between liberal and conservative communities.
The highest Trump-supporting counties had a death rate 2.73 times that of the counties that voted for Biden. People living in counties that voted for President Trump in 2016 were 14 percent less likely to follow social distancing guidelines. Democrats were, in general, significantly more worried about Covid-19 than their Republican counterparts, practiced more social distancing and isolation, wore their masks more consistently, visited the workplace less and were more prepared for general disruption.
It certainly didn’t help that the pandemic emerged during the term of one of the United States most controversial presidents. Trump’s administration was incredibly polarizing already, and their pandemic response was irresponsible and created further divisions. They used Covid-19 for their political gain to the greatest extent possible. In September 2020, President Trump held a rally in Henderson, Nevada ignoring all state health regulations which limited public gatherings to 50 people and required social distancing. Later, President Trump bragged about the lack of action on the part of Nevada state authorities to enforce regulations during his rally, supposedly highlighting his importance and support during a time when no one else could host such events. President Trump also contracted Covid-19 shortly after.
Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law of President Donald Trump even admitted in an interview that the Trump administration actively wanted to politicize the pandemic, saying "Trump's now back in charge. It's not the doctors.” He made this comment only three days after Covid-19 deaths had reached their all time peak.
And, while political fragmentation during the pandemic is not a trend exclusive to the United States, no other country has seen it on the same massive scale. According to Pew Research Center findings in July of 2021 on the tie between ideological leanings and Covid-19 restriction preferences, in the U.S. only seven percent of left-leaning individuals wanted fewer restrictions, where 52 percent of right-leaning individuals wanted the same. In Canada, the difference was between nine percent of left-leaning individuals and 21 percent of right-leaning individuals and in South Korea, the difference was between 11 percent of left-leaning individuals and 22 percent of right-leaning individuals.
To politicize matters of public policy is one thing, but to use politics to actively undermine the validity of fact-based science is another. People are entitled to differences of opinion on issues like vaccine mandates, Covid-19 or otherwise, on the basis of their moral or religious values. But when they support these differences of opinion with conflicting, and blatantly false, scientific rationale, we can see the dark side of partisan health issues in the United States. Kushner’s comment about President Trump taking the country back from the doctors is a perfect example of this drive to twist scientific facts for purposes of political gain. This rise in the perpetuation of false and misleading information, particularly from the right, has been notably prominent and dangerous during the pandemic.
This twisting of information is not limited solely to official sources like the White House. Far-right extremists have continued to further their narrative of distrust in government powers by warning that the Covid-19 vaccine is one more attempt to control the U.S. population. The U.S. government set up a reporting system, called VAERS, to document adverse side effects of Covid-19 vaccines. However, the statistics produced by VAERS are simple raw data that is incomplete and meant only for analysis and verification by scientists. Far-right groups have repeatedly used VAERS unverified reports to “prove” that Covid-19 vaccines are entirely unsafe and that the government is actively seeking to harm or control U.S. American citizens.
The intense politicization of the pandemic negatively impacts the public health system’s ability to protect lives. Potentially effective Covid-19 relief plans are blocked by opposing parties for political gain without considering the universal benefits of public health protection. When extensive resources are used to support public health initiatives like vaccine distribution, they are wasted in communities where political narratives about the pandemic overshadow rational fears for one’s safety and wellbeing.
To an extent, it certainly is the role of the president to remain informed and to be a centralized form of knowledge sharing for the U.S. American people. But President Biden is not a medical professional or a scientist. Nor was President Trump. Nor are the vast majority of political figures making the critical day-to-day decisions that affect millions of American lives during a now two-year-long pandemic. This reliance on the president or the White House to have 100 percent accurate information at all times, especially during a time of ever-changing knowledge and facts, exacerbates the ability of politicians to politicize Covid-19.
Covid-19 is not a partisan issue. The virus has affected millions of people with no regard for victims’ political affiliation, their morals and religious values. Government responses to disaster and public policy changes will never not be political — there’s no way to avoid the partisan nature of tackling these issues altogether — but the politics of these changes need not be rooted in calculated attacks on opposing parties nor in blatantly false information.
Grace Bechdol is Editor-in-Chief. Email her at
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