While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on across the nation, another equally important issue has arisen in recent months: the politicization of COVID-19. Interestingly, this issue is not unique to the coronavirus pandemic. From climate change to the HIV/AIDs crisis, scientific issues have long been disputed by politicians and world leaders, and in turn, by the general public, having negative effects on public health in our communities.
Mainstream media plays a crucial role in the politicization of COVID-19 safety measures by manipulating the perceptions of the general public. The ideological divide between mask-wearers and mask-opponents begins with the information they receive.
Oftentimes, this information comes from mainstream media and politically biased television networks that pick information to support their own political agenda. Because of this, the media can also play a major role in the spread of misinformation.
Take, for example, the recent contradictions regarding mask mandates. In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) renounced their earlier recommendation, stating that all Americans should wear cloth masks to contain the spread of COVID-19. According to Leya Labadie, a nurse at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno for six years, “because of the inconsistencies with the CDC … [people] are going to find evidence in different resources … they don't know how to find credible sources because what’s out there is very skewed and biased.”
One of the most significant factors contributing to the politicization of masks is best represented in a theory known as cultural cognition - “the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact… to values that define their cultural identities.” In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, social-distancing and mask wearing have become political symbols, used to identify whether one supports the Democratic or Republican party. Therefore, asking someone to change their stance on masks would be the equivalent of asking them to alter their social and political identity.
Another commonly cited assertion is that mask mandates violate one's civil liberties.
However, in times of public health crisis, government intervention has been known to occur.
In fact, in the 1824 Gibbons V. Ogden case, the Supreme Court ruled that states have the right to enact health laws when public health is at risk. While mask mandates could technically infringe on one’s rights, the state can still legally do so.
The effects of politicizing and disputing the pandemic are clear, with the ideological divide between mask-wearers and mask-opponents growing over the past few months. According to researchers from the University of Iowa College of Public Health, studies estimate that as many as 36,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented in the U.S. if safety guidelines were followed properly.
Disputes over masks and social-distancing measures have impacted healthcare workers like Labadie, who have had to take on an increased workload in an already resource-strained hospital. Labadie mentions that “it’s hard when we are short [on] patient care assistance and short [on] housekeepers … we take over those jobs [as nurses].”
From a public health standpoint, it is clear that politicizing the pandemic seems to incite public panic and anger rather than making a difference in the numbers.
This commentary is part of a new ongoing column that gives students at Lemoore Middle College High School a platform to be heard.
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