Politicization of COVID

Jane Clark and Amitha Nair

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. government to slow the spread of COVID caused divisions between conservatives and liberals. Different interpretations of medical data impacted vaccination, masking and social distancing efforts.

Conservative polarization, anxiety, mixed signals and false alarms swayed the public toward accepting or rejecting the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines. These stressors, however, came not from the medical world but rather the political.

Conservative politicians, particularly President Donald Trump, were more resistant when it came to the lockdown, masks, quarantine, vaccines and boosters.

News outlets like Fox News and The Federalist promoted shorter quarantine periods and waiting for more trials before getting the vaccine. By airing stories like “lockdowns during the first COVID-19 wave in the spring of 2020 only reduced COVID-19 mortality by .2% in the U.S. and Europe,” Fox News provided information from a Johns Hopkins University meta-analysis of several studies. As a result, speculation regarding the legitimacy of the lockdown spread throughout the conservative community.

Along with other information provided on these news channels and sites, this coverage directed conservatives to be more hesitant about the technology and science introduced during the pandemic.

President Trump responded to CDC guidelines in his own way, continuing his campaign pre-COVID style: he hosted rallies with unmasked crowds in September 2020, met with people in close quarters maskless, disregarded social distance and testing rules for the presidential debate and tweeted his opinions.

“The Far Left Fake News Media, which had no COVID problem with the Rioters & Looters destroying Democrat run cities, is trying to COVID Shame us on our big Rallies. Won’t work!” he tweeted on June 15, 2020.

While Trump himself contributed to the politicization of COVID-19 on social media. he did say in an interview toward the beginning of the outbreaks, “We have to take it very, very seriously… we are preparing for the worst,” which shows despite his political stance, the government was taking action.

Mask regulations in different parts of the country reflected the same politicization. California, a mostly blue state, still requires masks for people age 2 and older in health care and long-term care facilities, emergency and homeless shelters and jails and prisons. On the other hand, in red-leaning Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed orders in May
2021 prohibiting local governments and school districts from mandating masks, according to a report by the American Association of Retired Persons.

Liberal polarization News outlets considered to be more left-leaning, such as CNN and The Washington Post, advocated for COVID the vaccine. However, when Neil Cavuto of Fox News urged viewers to get their vaccinations, he received backlash from conservative viewers, while his liberal audience grew. This shows how politics and COVID-19 guidelines went hand-inhand during the peak of the pandemic and continue to so today.

News stations were not alone politicizing the vaccine; political candidates built their vaccine opinions and suggestions into their campaigns. Liberal politicians mostly advocated for the CDC’s instructions, thus gaining public support from those who feared the virus the most, according to the Brookings Institution.

Most Democratic office holders and candidates, like Kamala Harris, pushed their audience to wear masks in public and get the vaccine as soon as they were eligible.

On social media and other online platforms, President Joe Biden heavily advocated for everyone to wear a mask and get the vaccine. In December 2021, he pledged to focus on testing and vaccinations to prevent the spread of the virus.

“My goal doesn’t include shutdowns or lockdowns, but widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing a lot more,” Biden said.

The further the United States gets from the initial lockdown, the more he advocates for medical action and less for shutdowns.

To publicize benefits of the vaccine, Instagram promoted by placing stickers on stories. Although the platform has not openly expressed being liberal, it incorporates ideas and concepts that relate to the liberal viewpoint. Instagram worked with big creators to post these stickers promoting CDC policies and also incorporated a fact check system to prevent the spread of false information about the virus and the vaccine