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  • Writer's pictureZach Elwood

Polarization over covid

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from the book Defusing American Anger. It discusses polarized views in America over covid and covid responses. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


Covid 

In highly polarized environments, issues that don’t have much prior association with one party or another may be subject to so-called “opinion cascades.” (This was previously discussed in the introduction: Michael Macy and his colleagues have researched this.) Chance and randomness likely play a role in how political groups form their stances on issues. A big reason for that is because powerful group leaders can play a role in affecting their group’s stance on an issue. 


In the case of covid and vaccines, is it possible to imagine an alternate reality where things happened differently and Democrats and Republicans had some of their stances on covid switched? If Trump had taken covid seriously at the start of the pandemic, and implemented strict lockdowns and travel restrictions, do you think there would've been substantial liberal-side pushback to that? If Trump had been president when the vaccine rolled out and had promoted it, would many liberals have been skeptical of the vaccine? 


Let’s take a look at how this might have played out in an alternate reality: 


When covid first appeared, President Trump was told by his advisors that he should take the threat very seriously, that covid had the potential to destroy the economy, kill many people, and effectively destroy his chances at a second term, so it was important for him to take it very seriously, and lead with a firm hand. So Trump quickly put in place strict restrictions, instituting strict lockdowns, restricting a lot of travel, and implementing strict testing protocols. 


There was a liberal pushback against these measures. One of the chief complaints was that excessive lockdowns were hurting many poor communities, especially communities of color. The lockdowns were hurting these communities financially and also hurting them psychologically, with increases in crime, domestic abuse, suicides, and more. There was also the perception that Trump’s strict crackdowns on travel and strict border patrol measures were due in part to xenophobic motivations for restricting immigration. 


Some mainstream liberal-leaning press ran op-eds about how the lockdowns were causing harm and were authoritarian in nature. Protests were held about the lockdowns in several major U.S. cities. 


As a few months went on, the pushback to strict lockdowns decreased a bit, owing to seeing how other countries struggled with covid-related deaths, and seeing how common and accepted such lockdowns were. 


Trump won the 2020 election. Because Trump’s administration was involved with the rollout of the vaccine, when the vaccine finally arrived, many liberals balked at getting it. Black people were especially vaccine-hesitant, due to high distrust of the U.S. government combined with high distrust of Trump. 


Liberal-leaning news outlets shared the point of view that we needed to respect the fact that many people had various conditions and sensitivities that made them more susceptible to bad effects from the vaccine. These news outlets also shared stories emphasizing how it was understandable and defensible to be hesitant to trust the vaccine when someone like Trump was in charge. 


Conservatives criticized liberals. They called liberals hypocrites for their attempts to label Republicans as “anti-science.” 


After a few months, liberal-side vaccine-hesitancy significantly dropped off, as it was evident that the rest of the world was using them and having good results. 


To be clear: I’m not saying I believe such a reality was likely, or even necessarily possible. But I do believe such thought experiments can help us see how our group’s stances on issues are sometimes motivated by a desire to not be like the other group and push against their stances. It can also be helpful in showing us how the things we’re most angry at the other side for are sometimes things we or our group is capable of. 


To help make the case that strict lockdowns could have been framed negatively by liberals, here’s an excerpt from a June 2020 Vox article


Before the coronavirus’s financial onslaught, economists and experts feared a recession would precipitously hurt black entrepreneurs. New data validates the concern. A report published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “the number of African-American business owners plummeted from 1.1 million in February 2020 to 640,000 in April.”


“The loss of 440,000 black business owners representing 41 percent of the previous level is disconcerting,” writes University of California Santa Cruz economist Robert W. Fairlie. This loss, he argues, means an increase in unaddressed “racial inequality,” with countless opportunities for “job creation, economic advancement, and longer-term wealth” disappearing. The report, which was based on census data, found that, like the coronavirus itself, the shutdown disproportionately affected black Americans — overall, the United States lost 22 percent of its business owners over the same period. [...]


That underlying issue metastasized during the sluggish rollout of the Paycheck Protection Program, which initially failed to reach black entrepreneurs. During April, as historic numbers of black-owned businesses shuttered, the Center for Responsible Lending estimated that up to 95 percent of black firms remained ineligible to receive PPP funding because they did not have employees. Neglected by government assistance, these one-person firms endured the extreme drop in consumer demand created by the lockdown alone, all while navigating Depression-era unemployment, which was more acute in black neighborhoods.


In April, national black unemployment sat at 16.7 percent versus white unemployment, which hit 14.2 percent. In May, the disparity grew, with the black unemployment rate at 16.8 percent versus a 12.4 percent white unemployment rate. 


A June 2020 piece in The Parliament Magazine talked about the perception that covid lockdowns in Europe were affecting minorities in disproportionate ways: 


[The non-profit group European Network Against Racism] claims that “more enforcement powers” given to police forces in many countries as part of COVID-19 lockdown measures is “disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities, who have been subjected to discriminatory checks and fines, racial profiling, and heavy-handed police tactics and violence.”


It’s possible to imagine that, if the Trump admin had instituted strict covid policies, we’d see more of these types of complaints. And those complaints would’ve fit into broader liberal-side narratives about racial injustice and Trump’s authoritarian nature. It seems likely that, even if the Trump administration took the same approaches that a Democrat administration would have, some influential liberals would’ve accused the administration of authoritarian and racist decisions. 


When it comes to vaccine skepticism, there’s good evidence to suggest that a vaccine rollout under Trump would have faced pushback. To quote from a March 2021 Washington Post article titled What Andrew Cuomo and Kamala Harris said about vaccine skepticism


In September, Harris, then the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate, hesitated when asked if she would take a vaccine that was approved before the election.


“I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump,” Harris said, “and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about. I will not take his word for it.”


Cuomo went further, suggesting he mistrusted not just President Donald Trump, but also the Food and Drug Administration under Trump. Asked about his confidence in the FDA, Cuomo indicated he didn’t have much.


“I’m not that confident,” Cuomo said, adding: “You’re going to say to the American people now, ‘Here’s a vaccine, it was new, it was done quickly, but trust this federal administration and their health administration that it’s safe? And we’re not 100 percent sure of the consequences.’ I think it’s going to be a very skeptical American public about taking the vaccine, and they should be.”


Interestingly, Cuomo’s objection that the vaccine was “new” and “was done quickly,” echo the concerns of many on the so-called “anti-vax” side. For some people, it isn’t that they distrusted vaccines in general, it was that they distrusted the speed of the process and what that might mean. 


There were many influential liberal people on Twitter who expressed distrust about vaccines being released during a Trump administration. Here are some examples of this:  





The nuance of the covid debate 

As with other issues we’ve examined, polarization has, like a centrifuge, pushed many of us to take pretty extreme positions on various covid-related issues, and to view the other side’s position with a lot of anger. 


Some liberals view conservatives as selfish monsters for not caring more about a deadly, contagious disease. And for some people, we’re still not doing nearly enough, even under Biden, to tackle covid. For some of these people, Biden and his administration are seen as responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and are more responsible for covid-related harm than is Trump.


Some tweets from politically liberal Twitter accounts that view Biden’s covid-related policies as responsible for massive harm. 


Other people believe that we’ve hugely over-reacted to covid, that we should never have shut down things like we did, considering all the negative financial and psychological costs. And of course some people have various conspiracy-minded beliefs, like believing that covid policies, and covid itself, are part of some sort of evil, far-reaching worldwide plot. 


But for most Americans, their beliefs lie somewhere in between the various extremes. Most people are able to see that there are no easy answers when it comes to covid, or pandemics in general. It’s simply hard to figure out how much to shut things down and restrict activities. It’s hard to know if you’re doing too much or not doing enough. 


It’s hard to know how many deaths are considered “acceptable”—and it’s hard to even broach that basic and important question without being perceived by some people as a coldblooded monster. 


I’m someone who considers myself pretty knowledgeable on covid topics, but it’s still not at all clear to me what the right strategies for covid were. As with the trolley problem scenarios examined in the beginning of this book, I can see how rational people can reach very different conclusions, depending on which angle they’re coming at the problem from, and how much they value some things over other things.


And it’d be hard to reach confident conclusions even with perfect information. And clearly we don’t have perfect information. At a fundamental level, it’s hard to know what’s going on with covid statistics. There are so many factors and complexity that have made it hard to get a clear picture. 


Some of the questions it’s possible for rational and well meaning people to ask: 


How transmissible is covid, or the different strains of covid? How deadly are the various strains? How much of a danger is covid for young, healthy people? 


How many people might have had covid without getting any symptoms, and how might that affect our ability to know how harmful it really is? 


How much exactly do vaccines help prevent us from getting sick or help prevent us from spreading the disease? How important is it for young, healthy people to get vaccines compared to older and less healthy people? 


All vaccines have some risks: is there a circumstance in which it makes sense to consider the risks presented by covid vaccines? If we’re told we’ll need to get multiple vaccine shots, does that multiply our risks and change the equation? 


How important is wearing a mask? If it’s not a high-rated mask, is it actually worth wearing it? Are there health downsides to breathing less oxygen for a long period of time that might make it better in some situations to not wear a mask?  


You may feel you know the answers to some of these questions. I have my own opinions. But the point is it’s not easy to feel confident that we’ve found the best answers to these questions. 


We should acknowledge that it’s hard to get good information, and that’s especially true when we’re surrounded by thousands of clamoring voices on TV and the internet telling us different things. It was common during the pandemic to hear one apparent expert say one thing about covid, and to turn around and hear another apparent expert say something completely different. And I still often see that now, as I write this section, in December of 2022.


With all this in mind, we shouldn’t be that surprised when our fellow citizens believe some very different things, even some things we believe are very wrong. We should have some humility and see that, even if we think we’re right this time around on whatever covid-related stance we took, it’s likely only a matter of time before we’ll be the ones believing something our social circle thinks is stupid.


We should be willing to see the nuance on these topics, and see how the views we have of “the other side” are often distorted. 


Monica Guzman wrote a book called I Never Thought of It That Way, which was aimed, like this book, at reducing American anger. In that book she talks about some of the polarized us-versus-them views she saw on the liberal side about covid: 


In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the economic shutdowns, which were saving lives and costing livelihoods all across the country. One day on Facebook I saw a distant acquaintance post an NBC News story topped by a photo of a group of angry people—some of the one hundred protesters who were calling for an end to the lockdowns outside the Ohio Statehouse. The photo, taken from inside that government building, where Ohio governor Mike DeWine was giving reporters an update, caught the protesters midshout on the other side of the glass doors. They were pressed up against those doors, they were mad, and they looked it. 


My acquaintance compared them to zombies in her post, calling up an apocalyptic horror movie you’ve probably heard of. It started a pile on. “These people should be so ashamed,” read one comment. “They are brainwashed, crazy cult members,” went another. One person simply wrote “Darwin,” and that caught on. To the folks on this thread, the maskless protesters risked catching COVID at the peak of a global pandemic and certainly didn’t seem like they had survival as a priority. “I guess that’s what we hope at this point,” one person said, to two laugh reactions. Their meaning: Maybe the demise of people too stupid to wear masks in a pandemic wouldn’t be such a bad thing. “Darwinism can’t happen quick enough,” said another, to a like. I felt sick. 


This wasn’t a popular Facebook post. It had twenty-one reactions total. It didn’t go viral. It didn’t go far. But we ignore the small exchanges. We dismiss the ones that don’t result in some massive shaming or gawking or headline or whatever as just the way it is. But these everyday posts say so much. They say everything. [...]


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I supported the economic shutdowns as a sucky but worthwhile sacrifice to the overall priority of safeguarding public health. But I saw the passion in people who lived different lives than me, and I was curious.


Around the same time I stumbled on that Facebook post comparing conservative protesters to zombies, I also happened on a New York Times story about the protests against the economic shutdowns. Far down in the story, one quote changed the way the whole dilemma looked to me. It worked on me so far, in fact, bubbling up again and again in my mind, that I would end up bringing it up in a podcast discussion about the pandemic and in countless breathless conversations we had in those days, trying to make sense of a world that was falling apart. 


The quote was spoken by a man named Phillip Campbell, a thirty-nine-year-old dad from southern Michigan who drove to Lansing to be one of the three or four hundred people protesting the shutdowns that day–mostly from inside their cars. “Mr. Campbell said he knew the virus was dangerous. He had friends who worked in health care. But he wanted to feel confident that the sacrifices he was making were being taken seriously,” the journalists wrote. “Mr. Campbell said the situation for many people he knew was dire. He estimated that about one-third of the people in his life were in free fall, without money for rent or food.”


Then came the view-changing quote: “It’s like I’ve got my mom hanging from a cliff and my child hanging from the other side and I’m being told to save one,” he said, using a metaphor to reflect the clashing risks to people’s health and to their finances. “What am I supposed to do? I have the right to be frustrated with the choice.”


In the moment I read that quote, Campbell’s dilemma made sense to me, and it began to shift the way I perceived this dilemma writ larger, this awful trade-off between economic well-being and public health. Isn’t economic well-being also a factor in public health? Whose calculations look different, way different from mine, and how should I account for that difference in my position on this issue?


I found myself wishing that the group mocking those folks could have been in a state of mind to hear Campbell’s point or even be exposed to it. But if they were so sure these folks were worthless stupid zombies, would they have scrolled that far down, to hear the voices of the protesters themselves? Would they have read the article? 


Let’s look at another area where our polarization has resulted in bad distortions about reality and about “the other side.” A Gallup survey from August 2021 asked 3,000 Americans their opinions on how serious covid was, and how likely it was to result in hospitalization for unvaccinated and vaccinated people. I’ll quote from the Gallup site: 


For both vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, very few adults reported a correct answer, which is less than one percent. [...] Only 8% of U.S. adults gave correct answers for the unvaccinated population and 38% for the vaccinated population.


Partisanship was a strong predictor of accuracy, but party accuracy varied by whether the respondent was assessing the risk of the vaccinated or unvaccinated populations.


For unvaccinated hospitalization risk, 2% of Democrats responded correctly, compared with 16% of Republicans. In fact, 41% of Democrats replied that at least 50% of unvaccinated people have been hospitalized due to COVID-19.


Let’s stop and dwell on that last part for a moment, as it’s so surprising. 41% of Democrats thought that there was more than a 50% chance of being hospitalized from covid if you were unvaccinated. 


That is a mind-boggling level of inaccuracy. Even at the start of covid, the rates of hospitalization were known to be very low. Here’s a quote from a CDC document from May of 2020: “The overall cumulative hospitalization rate is 67.9 per 100,000, with the highest rates in people aged 65 years and older (214.4 per 100,000) and 50-64 years (105.9 per 100,000).”


To take a resource from later in the pandemic: a Washington state Department of Health report from February 2022 found that the hospitalization rate was 33 out of 100,000 for younger people, and up to 375 for older people. 


Let’s take the higher number: 375 out of 100,000 people is only %0.375: in other words, that’s one-third of a 1% chance of being hospitalized. (There are other different statistics one can find on this, but all of them show an estimate significantly lower than 1%.) And as was also known early on, the biggest risks from covid were present mainly if you were pretty old, or otherwise in poor health. 


I can personally attest that many liberal people I knew had drastically inaccurate perceptions of the threat of covid. I always had a strong understanding of the statistics, and knew that there wasn’t much for me myself to fear from covid: my main fear was giving it to vulnerable people. But I knew many healthy, young liberal people who spoke as if getting covid represented a significant risk for them. 


And why are these distorted perceptions important? It’s important because, in that inaccuracy, we can see how it is that liberals can be perceived as being extremely hysterical about covid. If covid had a high likelihood of hurting almost everyone, it of course makes obvious sense to shut down everything and do everything we can to combat it. The more that someone sees covid as an acceptable risk, the more it can make sense to take more moderate approaches, like focusing on keeping the most vulnerable amongst us from harm instead of implementing extremely strict lockdown policies. 


Again, you don’t have to agree with others’ takes on these things. For example, you might be someone who has an accurate understanding of covid dangers and who still wants strict and far-reaching covid restrictions and vaccine requirements. But the point is simply that differences in opinion are understandable. It’s easy to see why many conservatives perceive liberals as too-hysterical on this topic, and it’s possible to see how that view of liberals has been a factor in conservative-side skepticism about covid and vaccines.


Put another way: if liberals as a group had more accurate perceptions about the risks of covid, is it possible that would’ve resulted in more reasoned and calm debates about covid and less conservative-side skepticism about liberal-side covid responses? 


And to tie this back to other topics we’ve discussed: the liberal-side distorted perceptions on covid risks can be seen as similar to the very distorted liberal-side perceptions about the number of unarmed black people killed each year by police. And it’s easy to see how these very wrong narratives contribute to our us-versus-them divides. They ramp up emotions, they ramp up anger. 


And, less obviously, such inaccuracies contribute to skepticism and anger on the other side. If we care about reducing bad and extreme ideas of people on “the other side,” we should care about reducing the bad, distorted, and divisive ideas of people on our side. And I’d say trying to make our group more reasonable and less divisive is far more productive than criticizing the other side—because we simply can’t influence the other side. 


On vaccine skepticism 

Some liberals perceive conservatives as fairly uniformly anti-vaccine. But it’s worth remembering that most Republicans are vaccinated. Surveys in late 2021 showed that roughly around 57% of Republicans were vaccinated. This was compared to 73% of adult Americans generally and 92% of Democrats. 


It’s also worth remembering that Trump himself has promoted the vaccine. To quote from a January 2022 NBC News article: “Former President Donald Trump has been promoting Covid-19 vaccinations and boosters despite opposition from his supporters, but [...] it's a message that's pleasing Trump's advisers.”


If our goal is reducing anger, it’s important to recognize how the other group is not uniform in their beliefs, just as our group is not uniform in its beliefs. 


When liberal-leaning media covers conservative-side vaccine skepticism, it can tend to focus on some of the more extreme views: for example, conspiracy theory beliefs about large-scale malicious plots, or crazy ideas like microchips being implanted via the vaccine. But if we want to reduce us-versus-them animosity, we should try to focus more on the understandable reasons for why some rational, well meaning people might be either unwilling to get vaccines, or against mandatory vaccines. 


So what are some of the more understandable reasons for why someone might not want to get the vaccine? 


  • They are distrustful of pharmaceutical companies, and have concerns about how quickly the vaccine was created. 

  • They have fears about negative side effects of the vaccine (and it’s true that all vaccines have risks of very bad outcomes, albeit usually very small risks). 

  • If they think the risks involved with covid are very low, and see some risks and unknowns present with the vaccine, they may prefer to run the risk of getting covid. 


All of these are comprehensible reasons: they don’t require someone to be a selfish monster to have those beliefs. You may disagree with them, and believe they don’t have a good understanding of the risks involved, but it’s possible to see how their stances might be rationally formed. 


It’s also worth seeing how vaccine skepticism isn’t only a conservative-side thing. There are some liberals who think covid fears are overblown and who won’t get the vaccine: for some of these liberals, there can be an overlap with stances that are critical of Western medicine and capitalism. 


I’ll give a personal example of some vaccine hesitancy on my part. As I wrote about earlier, years ago I had so-called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and it was a miserable experience. At the worst point of things, I felt like I had the flu every day. I felt so consistently physically bad, day in and day out, that I had begun feeling a bit suicidal. The important point is: I was miserable, and even though things improved and I feel quite good these days, I live with a fear of my body again entering that mysterious state. One theory of CFS is that it’s a post-viral condition: that it’s caused by your body entering some sort of low-energy state as a result of a viral infection, or some other type of infection or shock to the system. It was also the case that I came down with CFS not too long after getting a flu shot: I don’t believe it was related, but the truth is nobody knows what causes CFS, and there are some theories, admittedly fringe, that vaccines could be one way people develop CFS. This is all to say: hopefully it’s easy to see why some people like myself, who’d suffered greatly from CFS or some other chronic and not well understood illness, might have some trepidations about the vaccine. 


But I did get the vaccine, because I was much less afraid of the vaccine than of getting covid, and figured it was only a matter of time before I did get covid. And after getting the first vaccine, I was in pretty rough shape for several days—and even for weeks afterwards I felt that my overall energy and achiness were worse than usual. I had a friend who, after getting the vaccine, spent several hours dry-heaving. You can find reports of people getting quite sick from the vaccine. And there seem to have been some small number of people who’ve died from vaccine complications, although it’s hard to understand how prevalent that was, or which of the stories were actually due to the vaccine versus other things. Again: even if you believe such negative outcomes are very rare and are not good reasons to avoid the vaccine, you can hopefully see how these kinds of things can have an effect on people. 


There are also influential black people who have promoted anti-vaccine perspectives to their predominantly black audiences. As one example of this: I heard the Atlanta-area radio host Yung Joc telling his audience why he wouldn’t get the vaccine, and one of his listeners called in and said thatYung Joc’s views had convinced him to not get the vaccine. On the liberal-side, some make excuses for vaccine skepticism amongst black Americans. The following is from a December 2020 Washington Post opinion piece:


“Vaccine hesitancy” from Black Americans is different from an “anti-vaxxer” stance. It’s not that Black Americans don’t believe in vaccines. They don’t trust a public health system that has in too many cases engaged in grievous harm by experimenting on Black bodies without consent or ignoring the specific needs of Black people.


[...] African Americans who would perhaps have the most to gain from the vaccine are the least likely to roll up their sleeves. A Pew study from mid-November found that only 42 percent of Black adults said they would get the vaccine. Other studies put the figure even lower. This is compared with 61 percent of Whites, 63 percent of Hispanics and 83 percent of (English-speaking) Asian Americans who said they would take the vaccine.


If you’re angry about some common conservative-side stances on the vaccine, do all forms of vaccine skepticism disgust you? If not, why not? Is it possible to see that people, no matter their race or political beliefs, can come to have some of the same underlying skepticisms and fears about these things?


“Living with covid” and other language 

It doesn’t seem likely that covid is going away, barring some huge and very unlikely worldwide shutdown, so in some sense it seems like we might agree that, in some sense, we’ll be forced to learn to “live with covid.” 


But that fairly simple phrase has been the source of a lot of anger. For some people, the phrase is offensive: it’s interpreted as someone being okay with a large number of covid deaths, and therefore lacking compassion. But some people aren’t using it in that way: they’re using it to describe the goal of trying to manage covid in such a way so that it becomes something more like the flu.  


Here, we can see how polarization can make people perceive the same phrase in vastly different ways, which often happens with language in a polarized environment. 

Elizabeth Stokoe works on conversation analysis, which is the scientific study of how we talk. A 2022 piece she helped write was titled What can we learn from the language of “living with covid”? Here’s an excerpt describing some of the different ways in which that phrase was interpreted in the United Kingdom: 


The start of 2022 saw a heavy emphasis on “living with it” in media and political discourse, with the different stances clear. 


For example, on 1 January 2022, in an article focused on medical solutions (vaccine, testing, anti-viral treatments) and the need to avoid “curbs on our freedom,” the secretary of state for health and social care, Sajid Javid said, “we must try to live with covid.” Three days later in the Financial Times, another article focused more on learning: “Planning for a permanent pandemic, rather than pretending it does not exist, is what learning to live with the virus really means.” Illustrating the different positions together, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, Michael Gove, said on 11 January that “the country had to learn to ‘live with covid’” and “admitted he was wrong to advocate within government for further restrictions.”


Last week, on 21 February 2022, the prime minister turned the “living with covid” phrase into the title of a formal statement to the House of Commons to articulate the UK government’s current strategy. The two positions in the rhetorical battle over what “living with covid” means—politically, personally, and practically—are further apart than ever (e.g., two articles in The Telegraph on 18 February 2022: “‘Gung-ho’ living with covid strategy could backfire…”; “Time to move on from covid for good: The point of living with covid is that individuals should make their own minds up…” 6). 


We argue that we need to move past clichéd phrases if we are to achieve a less binary and more productive point of connection. 


I talked to Elizabeth Stokoe for my podcast, and she talked about some of the ways we might be more persuasive and less polarizing with our language. For example, she talked about how unhelpful and polarizing it was to lump a broad range of vaccine-hesitant people, or people critical of vaccine mandates, into a category of “anti-vax” or “vaccine deniers” or “covid deniers.” 


The more simplistic and insulting our language is, the more we’ll amplify polarization and add to the very problems we’re angry about. 


Death and tragedy can skew our perceptions

One of the obstacles to having nuanced and non-angry conversations about covid is that most of us are just simply bad at thinking about and talking about risk. We can easily live in fear of terrifying but very rare scenarios that only affect a few people a year, like terrorist attacks or plane crashes or school shootings, while thinking hardly at all about the common and numerous risks around us that are far more likely to harm us, like car crashes, or obesity-linked health risks, or pollution-caused illness, or whatever. 


And not all ways we might die are equally scary to us. The more suffering and violence is involved, and the more preventable the method of death seems, the more we’ll likely find it scary.  


And when death and heartbreak are involved, it’s easy for us to use those things to form pessimistic, polarized narratives about the world around us. And we can see this playing a role with covid. 


On social media, there are occasionally posts from people about their relatives or friends who have died from covid. These posts are sometimes shared with emotional and angry messages about America’s failures in handling covid, or Republicans’ failures. Sometimes immense anger is directed even at the Biden administration for their perceived failures at handling covid. 


Someone dying from covid is of course a tragic thing, and it’s not surprising that such stories are capable of evoking a lot of emotion and anger. But it’s worth seeing that stories of people dying from covid are not evidence, on their own, that covid-related laws should be more strict. In the same way, flu-related deaths are not evidence, on their own, that we need more strict flu-related laws. 


Many people will continue to die from covid each year, just as tens of thousands of people have been dying from the flu each year. And we’ll need to “live with” that reality, unless our stance is that we need to go into extensive societal lockdown to prevent almost all covid-caused deaths. And clearly, we can’t do that. Even if that were a policy you’d advocate for, it would never be politically feasible. And it’s not even clear that such an approach would solve things: it might only delay us facing reality a bit longer. 


Put another way: if your stance is that, because covid deaths are still happening, we need to enact very strict covid-related rules, then would you feel a similar approach should be taken for the flu? If not, why are those things different? Is it possible to see how some people view such deaths as unfortunate but necessary costs of having a functioning society—similar to how most people in America had probably previously viewed flu-related deaths? 


To be clear: this is not to say that we can’t work towards minimizing covid cases and covid-caused deaths. But it’s to examine our collective weakness at thinking about risk. For some people even a small amount of harm will be seen as unacceptable, as horrible, even though the reality is that it’s nearly impossible for us to avoid some amount of harm. 


A tweet from 2019 about a young girl’s death from the flu. Covid-related deaths are capable of causing highly emotional takes about whether our response to covid is good enough, but it’s worth recognizing that, no matter our response to covid, it would be almost impossible for us to avoid a significant number of covid-related deaths. 


Conservative-side covid skepticism 

If you’re someone who thinks we’ve over-reacted to covid, is it possible to see that much of the world reacted in a similar way? 


One way to see how real the concerns were is to examine the way so many countries reacted to covid, and see the covid deaths they reported. Even Russia, by the end of 2021, reported 300,000 covid deaths. Researchers estimated that Russia was undercounting and that its true numbers were probably closer to 1 million. But the point is that even Russia, not a country likely to follow blindly along with American or Western trends, reported hundreds of thousands of covid deaths. 


A January 2022 article on Nature.com was titled The pandemic’s true death toll: millions more than official counts. It examined covid-related deaths from multiple countries. Here’s an excerpt from that: 


For countries covered by the WMD, official figures suggest that 4.1 million deaths since the start of the pandemic are down to COVID-19—around 10% of all deaths during that time. But the duo’s calculations suggest that, when excess mortality is taken into account, deaths related to COVID-19 are 1.6 times greater, at around 6.5 million deaths (or 16% of the total). In some countries, the relative impact of the virus is even higher. One-third of all deaths in Mexico can be attributed to the virus, Karlinsky and Kobak’s data suggest.


Some countries enacted much more strict lockdowns than America did. I personally knew people in Barcelona, Spain, who, at the height of their lockdowns, weren’t allowed to leave their apartments without having an approved reason. 


Is it possible to see why people and organizations responded the way they did? Is it possible to see that many people were genuinely scared, and that many people genuinely wanted to minimize deaths as much as they could? 


Even if you think some covid responses were unnecessary and harmful, is it at least possible to see why people were worried and why they believed strict measures were necessary? 


Is it possible to view some conservative-side pushback to covid policies as being at least partly due to those policies being associated with liberals? 

When we’re polarized, we’re prone to confidently embracing us-versus-them narratives, like thinking someone who is pro-mask-mandate is “pure evil.” 


Some people have beliefs that organizations requiring masks or vaccines are limiting their freedom in problematic ways. But every country has a multitude of laws and private-company policies that people must abide by. Our freedom is limited in many fairly arbitrary ways. When it comes to, for example, a cruise ship requiring proof of vaccine to travel; that’s not any more a violation of your freedom than is the multitude of other restrictions we face from private companies or from governments, like the fact that you can’t give blood if you’ve been to certain countries recently, or that you can’t vote in some states if you’ve committed a felony, or that airlines limit the types of things you can bring on airlines. 


If you’re someone angry about perceived restrictions to your freedom, is it possible you’re being overly entitled in thinking that your perceptions of the world must be everyone else’s perception? Is it possible that you’re over-reacting to what are completely comprehensible precautions being taken by concerned and rational people and organizations just trying to do what they think is the right thing? If you believe liberals sometimes over-react to perceived infringements of their rights, can you see how you might also be seen as over-reacting? 


Is it possible that a lot of the anger around covid and other issues are due to more and more people, on both sides, who simply can’t bear not getting their way? 


Is it possible to see how some conservative-side conspiracy-minded theories about covid make conservatives seem very unreasonable? For my podcast, I interviewed Peter Wood, who believed the 2020 election was illegitimate. One thing he wrote on this subject was: “Progressives manipulated the Wuhan virus epidemic by turning a manageable health crisis into a major economic disaster, an excuse for stripping Americans of their civil liberties, and an incitement of mass hysteria.” 


To Peter’s way of thinking, America’s covid responses were part of a huge malicious plot. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that many countries across the world reacted in similar ways: that many countries tried hard to contain covid. No, American reactions to covid were part of a big secret plot by liberals. Hopefully you can see how strange and paranoid that seems to many people. 


And Trump has done his part in promoting these conspiracy-minded theories. This was one email sent from the Trump team in mid 2020: “They want you to be AFRAID of the coronavirus, because that's how they MANIPULATE you into voting for their liberal puppets. FIGHT BACK. We can't beat the Liberal Billionaires trying to steal this Election unless every Patriot takes action.”


Can you see how such extreme views taint the perception people have of conservatives? If you’re someone who believes that liberals are responsible for a lot of bad decisions about covid, are you able to see that conservative leaders have a lot to answer for, too, in promoting divisive and unproven narratives?


This was an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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