Nearly every issue has become fodder for political combat in our polarized society, so I was not surprised when the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be no exception. Depending on which side of the Red/Blue divide we’re on, the virus is:
- A source of wildly overblown fearmongering. The coronavirus gets more attention because it’s new, but the flu actually kills more people in the U.S. and is thus more dangerous. We should ignore the hype and go about our business as usual.
- Armageddon. Our lives are about to change drastically. Hospitals will be overwhelmed. Millions of people will die. We must cancel everything immediately in order to prevent imminent worldwide disaster.
As each new day brings constantly revised case numbers and a climbing death toll, culture warriors on the cable news networks have managed to stir a generous dose of character assassination into the mix. The Facebook and Twitter meme wars have begun. Blame and finger-pointing abound.
Some conservatives have accused those in the liberal/progressive camp of actually hoping millions of people die and the stock market crashes so Donald Trump will be defeated in November’s presidential election. Some on the liberal/progressive side have accused folks in the conservative camp of not caring whether Grandma dies as long as the stock market stays up and Trump gets reelected. Good grief. I wish I were making this up.
“Our hyper-polarization is so strong that we don’t even assess a potential health crisis in the same way,” Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State political science professor who studies polarization, told a Reuters reporter (link HERE). This “impedes our ability to address it.”
For my husband Pete and I, the COVID-19 crisis is intensely personal. That’s because we check the boxes on several of the at-risk categories (age, lung disease, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, BINGO!). All these risk factors could make the coronavirus extremely dangerous for us. Suffice it to say, we are taking this threat very seriously. Ugh. Prayers appreciated!
Pete was hospitalized at the end of February with a pneumonia-type virus. Upon his release, his medical team told him to stay home until further notice to avoid being exposed to some of the virulent flu strains already going around our community because his immune system is so compromised. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve voluntarily quarantined myself along with him to avoid catching anything that I could then pass to him. And that’s before the COVID-19 saga started.
Some use the argument that “flu kills 50,000 people a year” as a reason for not taking COVID-19 seriously. Influenza does indeed infect hundreds of thousands of people annually, even folks who were responsible enough to get vaccinated. And it kills way too many of them. But the answer is not to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19. The answer is to take all communicable diseases, including influenza, more seriously.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a bad idea to pass along one’s illness to others. In early 2018, Pete and I stopped at a lovely little buffet for lunch on our way to visit cousins in North Carolina. The young woman who waited on us was highly contagious, judging from her constant sniffling, coughing and sneezing. We never arrived in North Carolina, but had to return home when we became ill ourselves. Pete wound up in the hospital.
Pete and I tried not to be judgmental toward the food server we believe gave us the flu that ultimately landed Pete in the hospital. We knew she probably couldn’t afford to stay home from work because of “a few sniffles,” since she most likely didn’t get paid sick days. And she may not have completely understood the risk involved in spreading influenza to an older person like my husband.
But I can’t believe the number of supposedly mature adults who neglect to cover their coughs and sneezes, and who show up in public obviously ill. I’m not even talking about people who go to work sick because they can’t afford to stay home. I’m talking about people who go to church, restaurants, public gatherings and other places where their presence is in no way required. It’s as if people have a hard time understanding why something that is not a problem for them could possibly be a problem for someone else.
And this is part of what makes the current COVID-19 crisis so scary for my husband and I, a reason that has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing politics.
I’m a fan of encouraging people not to panic, although I’m sure some would quibble with me on what constitutes a “panic response.” For me, a panic response includes things like buying up a store’s entire supply of toilet paper and leaving none for our neighbors. Or avoiding certain people simply because they look like they might be of Chinese ancestry as opposed to maintaining distance from someone because they’re coughing and sneezing all over the place. It is NOT a “panic response” to follow the suggestions of public health experts, including those suggestions that may inconvenience us like staying away from crowds when we’re sick.
The tricky part is figuring out how to separate the progressive vs. conservative political posturing from the information we need to know in order to protect ourselves.The hysteria I’ve noticed so far comes mostly from politicians (of both stripes) and the news media, while the information from the public health people and medical experts has been very helpful in figuring out how to deal with our current situation.
As people in the high-risk group, my husband and I have elected to listen to our doctors and medical experts, not politicians and news media pundits. Here are some very good sites I trust to be reliable sources of unbiased information about COVID-19. The information is provided by trained medical professionals whose only agenda is to help us stay healthy:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Includes up-to-date information on global locations where cases have appeared, symptoms, steps to prevent illness and what to do when sick. Link HERE.
- Mayo Clinic. Includes an overview on symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, along with risk factors, prevention, travel advice and up-to-the-minute news about the outbreak. Link HERE.
- WebMD. More coronavirus news and updates, how to prepare your family for disruptions that might occur, ways to toughen up your immune system and how to separate facts from hype. Link HERE.
The truth about COVID-19, according to these experts? Children and young adults may experience the new virus the same way they experience a common cold or a mild case of flu. On the other hand, elderly people or people of any age with serious underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes face a potentially life-threatening risk if infected.
And yes, COVID-19 does appear to be more serious than the flu, according to these experts. Even if the fatality rate turns out to be closer to 1 percent than the initial 3.4 percent figure cited by the World Health Organization, this is still 10 times deadlier than influenza in a bad year.
Am I worried about COVID-19? I’d be lying big time if I said I wasn’t. My husband and I are trying to keep a lid on our anxiety by following the advice of our health care team and doing what we can to keep ourselves healthy. But given the stakes for us, we’d really love for the political posturing by culture warriors on both sides to stop so we can get down to the business of addressing the crisis in front of us constructively.
If they really want to be responsible, the news media could use the current COVID-19 situation as a powerful “teachable moment.” Here’s a chance to impress on the general population the vital importance of good handwashing hygiene, covering coughs or sneezes properly and staying home when sick – whether we’re talking about COVID-19 or the more garden-variety influenza.
The media can also educate the public on why illnesses that are little more than a nuisance to younger/healthier people can land at-risk people in intensive care or worse. Many otherwise intelligent people still fail to understand this.
If they really want to be responsible, elected officials of both parties could work together on policies like paid sick leave that make it easier for people to stop coming to work sick. They could collaborate in a bipartisan way to improve our health care system so people can get the medical treatment they need to avoid passing their illnesses to others.
If the rest of us want to be responsible, we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about how to help each other through the current crisis.
This could go a long way toward saving lives in the face of communicable diseases of all kinds.