Covid-19 restrictions were a cynical attempt by Democrats to undermine Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. No need to live in fear. It wasn’t really dangerous - it was just like the flu. And it would go away after the election anyway.
That’s what we were told. Guess what? It hasn’t gone away. Instead, this kind of rhetoric in the US has undermined public trust, brought partisan politics into efforts to control the spread, and left a body count.
Denying the seriousness of the situation
It seemed apparent from early on that Trump had based his re-election campaign on a strong economy and particularly a strong stock market. Covid-19 restrictions and the resulting spike in unemployment and crash in the stock market threatened that. That meant that, to him, the problem wasn’t an infectious disease that needed to be controlled, but a threat to the economy that needed to be removed.
This meant that the disease was talked down, with any blame conveniently shared between Democrat governors and China. It was just the “Wuhan flu”. Numbers would be lower if they just didn’t test so many people. It was an attack on religious freedom, and the churches were going to be back by Easter. And I’ve heard that even the situation in New York and some other major cities was dismissed as the work of crisis actors.
Trump, already impeached for misusing his power for personal electoral gain, talked about Covid-19 as another impeachment hoax. States needed to re-open, in spite of the fact that his own government’s health advice was against re-opening. In fact, Trump called for Michigan and a couple of other states to be “liberated” from restrictions - a call which was answered by armed protesters.
Then there was what was perhaps the ultimate denial: It would just disappear. Shortly before the election CNN produced a confronting tracker, matching every time Trump said that with the daily case numbers.
A notable interview
I particularly remember noticing this interview with Eric Trump:
"Biden loves this," @EricTrump says, talking about agonizing shutdowns during the pandemic... "They'll milk it every single day between now and Nov. 3, and guess what, after Nov. 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear... " pic.twitter.com/WS0CPQMtsj— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) May 17, 2020
Very little of this was new: I knew that the response had been all about the election, I’d heard the controversy over mail-in voting, and I wasn’t surprised to hear one of Trump’s sons repeating the same partisan lines.
However, it was the brazenness of the claims that caught me. Yes, there may have been uncertainty early on about how bad Covid-19 could be. But this was in the middle of May, and there was no excuse.
A global crisis
I saw all this unfolding from Australia. Last year I wrote about how I slowly became aware of it in the first few months of the year. It was abundantly clear that Covid-19 was a serious, global crisis which had nothing to do with the US election.
By mid-May, when Eric Trump gave that interview, we were just coming out of our first lockdown. Australia’s borders had been largely closed since March, unemployment had risen, and our fiscally conservative government had been forced to give up their focus on reaching a surplus and to provide massive economic support. I guarantee you they didn’t do that to try and stop Donald Trump being re-elected.
Overseas, I had seen very serious situations in Wuhan, then in Italy, and in March we were worried that we might be next. So when I heard about the situation in New York it was quite clear that there was no need for crisis actors. The disease was serious, it had affected other parts of the world before New York, and at the same time it was spreading in New York it was spreading in many other parts of the world (including significantly affecting my colleagues in the UK).
With all that in mind, there was no way that it would just magically go away after the US election.
Making the situation partisan
It’s bad enough downplaying the virus, but it’s worse when it’s framed by a partisan lens. Though Trump (and his supporters) particularly targeted certain Democrat governors, both Republican and Democrat governors brought in restrictions.
I haven’t looked in detail into which restrictions each state brought in, though I gather as a generalisation Republican governors imposed fewer restrictions and tried to raise them earlier. However, the point is that no-one was able to completely ignore it. This is an infectious disease that left unchecked will overload hospitals and kill many. It’s not a hoax brought in to win an election.
So far, Australia and New Zealand have been served relatively well by strictly controlling the disease before re-opening, though I have no idea how well our approach would work somewhere like the US. I think there are valid discussions to be had about where the right line is between freedom and control, risk and reward. But those discussions have to start by acknowledging the seriousness of the disease and trying to understand the available ways to control spread. And decisions on, say, when and where to wear masks or which gatherings should be permitted should be based on the effectiveness of the measures, not which political party you support.
Making it partisan made it much more difficult to have those conversations. For example, initially mail in voting had seemed like an obvious response to a pandemic requiring social distancing, but Trump and many Republicans tried to kill that with talk of voter fraud. Similarly, while the CDC recommended masks, Trump himself rarely wore one, and many of his supporters followed suit.
This also led to distrust of the motivations of leaders who did take it seriously. For example, I remember seeing discussion online about how Democrat leaders didn’t always wear their masks properly, and sometimes touched their face when wearing a mask. This was supposed to prove that those leaders were cynically using Covid-19 to control the population and didn’t really believe it to be dangerous.
It upsets me how quick people can be to assume bad faith. Of course believing mask wearing is important doesn’t magically bestow on you power to wear masks perfectly. People have been saying since the start of the pandemic how difficult it can be to not touch your face, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t always wear a mask 100% correctly. That doesn’t show that I don’t believe in Covid-19, just that I’m human.
The partisan lens is not the only lens to look at the situation through. Yes, I’m sure politicians do sometimes make decisions for partisan reasons. But they also make decisions because they consider them the right decisions, decisions that are best for the people they are elected to serve.
How can you trust leaders if you think they’re always acting for partisan reasons? For that matter, how can you trust anyone? How can it be good for two halves of the country to essentially think of the other half as the enemy? How can it be good to ignore or resist measures based on expert advice because they were put in place by people from the “other side”?
What actually happened
Firstly, Trump did lose the election. Decisively. Secondly, Covid-19 stayed around, and so did the associated restrictions.
If they had magically disappeared from the US on November 4, I’d have been incredibly upset with the Democrat leadership for sacrificing an entire country for partisan gain, but glad that my friends were safer and could resume a more normal life. However, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t.
Instead, daily case numbers hit a new high on election day, and continued to rise. Restrictions tightened again. Hospitals were overwhelmed, and daily case numbers (fuelled by Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings) had more than doubled before peaking in early January. It was only by the start of February that numbers were returning to the level they were on election day.
Now it’s more than a month after Biden’s Inauguration Day, and I think the last possible conspiracy - that Democrats maintained restrictions through January to make Biden look better - is gone. I imagine as a result that the partisan narrative has quickly pivoted from “It’s not that serious” to “See, Biden has already failed because he hasn’t magically fixed it”.
However, that wasn’t all that happened. Trump had been making claims about electoral fraud since the summer, and after losing he continued to claim that the election was stolen and to fight it in the courts. Ultimately, this led to the Capitol itself being stormed at Trump’s incitement to try and overturn the election result, and to another impeachment trial.
I can’t help thinking that this must have had some effect on the efforts to control the disease. I believe the Biden transition team took the disease seriously, but while doubt was being thrown on the election result they couldn’t get the access they needed.
Vaccines are now being rolled out in various countries around the world, including the US. I understand they are already starting to help control the spread, and hopefully those results will continue to improve as more are vaccinated. However, I’m not sure even they are the magic solution that will make Covid-19 “go away”.
It’s nearly three months since the election, and Covid-19 hasn’t gone away in the US. By making it all about his election prospects, Trump has intensified the existing partisan divide and made the situation worse for the country as a whole, including friends I care about.
The truth is that the restrictions were (and are) there because the situation is serious, and because leaders were trying to manage the disease and protect people. Around the world, the pandemic has caused the popularity of many leaders to rise. Perhaps if Trump and Republicans generally had taken the disease more seriously and helped get it under better control rather than pushing to re-open the economy he would have had a better chance of being re-elected. We will never know.
I don’t know how much difference a better president would have made. I don’t know how much difference President Biden will now be able to make. But I do think taking the pandemic seriously and following expert advice rather than partisan politics is a good idea.