The COVID Culture Wars: Deadly Side Effects of an Irrational System

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Omicron is finally in decline, but the U.S. is still marching toward an astounding one million COVID deaths. While the trajectory of the pandemic itself has had schools, hospitals and workplaces swinging back and forth between cautious optimism and immediate disaster with the spread of new variants, one constant has been the unabated growth of political and social instability resulting from pandemic-related polarization. 

Polarization was severe enough before, but the pandemic changed the way people see the world. For many people, the outrage has been directed at the bosses getting richer while working people bore the brunt of the pandemic’s cost. They have quit their jobs, organized in their workplace for COVID safety, or even formed new unions or gone on strike.

For others, the toll of the volatility has driven them into the arms of a right wing movement that was all too prepared to capitalize on their anxiety and frustration. The impact of this phenomenon on the political landscape has become impossible to ignore. Vaccination status is now considered a better predictor of voting patterns than any other metric, including demographics and previous voting history. 

Bungled COVID Response Opens the Door

Trust in government was already low at the beginning of 2020, but at first, perceptions about the pandemic were significantly less divided. Polarization actually fell in the early months of the COVID outbreak in the U.S. There was little controversy over mask-wearing and social distancing.

The majority of the blame for today’s crisis lies with Trump: as then-president, he first began stoking the flames of pandemic denial in February 2020 in a transparent attempt to deflect from his administration’s lack of preparedness. With his vast sway over his base and rapidly intensifying claims that the media was overstating the danger of the pandemic, demonstrations against COVID restrictions kicked off in April 2020 and haven’t stopped since. The depth and severity of the pandemic forced the Trump administration to make major concessions like the federal eviction moratorium, expanded unemployment, and stimulus payments – but the political damage was done, the groundwork laid for worsening polarization and the unchecked growth of COVID conspiracy theories.

By the time long-awaited vaccines rolled out, a contentious presidential election had placed the pandemic at the center of a partisan battle. Mask-wearing became a political statement. What’s worse, crucial pandemic relief was expiring. Uncertainty, distress, and anxiety proved the perfect recipe for an uncontrollable flood of misinformation. 

Plenty of ordinary people had genuine questions about the vaccine. But with the already depleted credibility of authorities like the CDC, there was no one to provide good answers. It wasn’t difficult for a curious online search of potential side effects to lead to a viral videos exposing “The REAL TRUTH,” sending countless susceptible people down a “plandemic”-5G-QAnon rabbit hole of Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine home recipes. Researchers at George Washington University found that on Facebook, anti-vaccine posts and groups were better at influencing the undecided, simply because they engaged seriously with people’s pre-existing concerns. So who actually gained the ear of the vaccine hesitant? Tucker Carlson, Infowars, and the high-profile influencers who make up the “Disinformation Dozen” were prepared to capitalize on the skepticism soapbox.

Opposition to mask and vaccine mandates has been one of the most consistent factors driving protests since Biden took office. Hundreds of protests took place in the early months of Biden’s presidency around vaccine and mask mandates. Where the left failed to fight for democratically decided safety protocols in the workplace, the right was able to swoop in and make the issue about an assault on “freedom.”  The Canadian truckers’ “Freedom Convoy” took the international spotlight for two weeks as it shut down central Ottawa, highlighting just how global of a phenomenon this has become.

While liberals took an increasingly callous approach to the unvaccinated, at times suggesting they should be denied health insurance, the Proud Boys and other far right groups sent organized contingents to intervene. 

Dangerous Talking Points Hand-fed by the Establishment 

American public health officials have been dishonest from the start. When hospitals faced critical shortages of PPE in February and March, instead of manufacturing and sending equipment to hospitals, Anthony Fauci was on the air downplaying the efficacy of masks, in what he later admitted was a dishonest maneuver to persuade people to save some for doctors and nurses. He played dumb on asymptomatic transmission, and then in 2021, the FDA and CDC pulled similar moves, dragging their feet on authorizing booster shots despite piles of evidence on their necessity months prior. These “noble lies” have only worsened the spread of misinformation, surrendered credibility, and dished out ammunition to the right wing to claim the whole thing is a government hoax. 

Biden took office in 2021 equipped with a 200-page strategy to defeat COVID, most of which was utterly abandoned in favor of a vaccines-only approach that, while an essential part of any strategy to tackle COVID, was insufficient and did nothing to restore confidence in our public health institutions or the government broadly. 

Biden and the Democrats could’ve taken meaningful steps to get control of the public health crisis and disrupt polarization. He could have pushed to lift vaccine patents to provide quality doses to the rest of the world, revamped contact tracing, guaranteed free tests to every household, and increased measures to protect working people by giving them resources – economic resources in particular – to stay safe. The approach he took instead was deeply unconvincing: declaring war on the unvaccinated. “Your refusal has cost all of us. Show some respect.” Scapegoating one section of society to deflect from the failure of his COVID strategy and lapsing relief measures was the path Biden chose, even if it meant fanning the flames of polarization by pushing the vaccine-hesitant further into the fringes. In this vein, Socialist Alternative always opposed firing people for being unvaccinated, and we have consistently called for workplace mandates to be negotiated between workers and employers.

While the ruling class has played a game of triangulation between partisan and profit interests, the virus remained set on its two main goals: increasing its transmissibility and overcoming immune response.

The new variant of concern, BA.2 or  “stealth Omicron,” accounts for one out of every five cases globally at the time of writing, and studies on its ability to cause more severe disease are awaiting peer review. It’s hard to imagine where this leaves us when pandemic pessimism is at an all-time high: 28% believe the pandemic will never go away, and 70% agreed with the statement, “it’s time we accept COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on our with our lives.” What else can we conclude when so much is out of our control? Any semblance of being in this together or of a light at the end of the tunnel that marked the first months of the pandemic in 2020 have gone by the wayside. 

The Only Mandate is Profit

Pandemic misinformation is a lucrative business. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen alleges Facebook knowingly allowed disinformation to spread on its platform. Big business wants the virus under control to the extent it doesn’t interfere with profits – and that’s it. They will readily declare the end of the pandemic if it means resuming profits, even if it puts the rest of us in the crosshairs of another deadly wave. While real wages are down 1.7 percent compared to a year ago, the profits of the top 500 companies have risen nearly 50 percent in the same time period. While working people lost or changed jobs, the billionaire class expanded substantially. Lost lives and lasting sickness are an opportunity cost for piling up wealth in the trillions. 

What would it have meant for the U.S. to avoid having the highest death toll of any wealthy country? Hospitals would need to have been fully stocked with PPE, adequately staffed, with expanded ICU capacity, and shuttered hospitals in rural areas in particular reopened. We also would need a serious contract tracing system from the start. There is, of course, no way to force private hospital CEOs to take these measures, meaning for-profit hospitals would need to be taken into democratic public ownership to ensure the safety of patients and workers. 

What would it take to vaccinate the entire population, including the tens of millions who still haven’t gotten a dose, as vaccination is lagging increasingly in the U.S.? First and foremost, pharma companies would need to be forced to make enough vaccines to distribute to the whole world, and prohibited from ripping off public health systems with predatory pricing. According to The Guardian, “some 15%-20% of unvaccinated Americans say they are still interested in getting their shots… they simply haven’t been able to yet.” The lack of paid sick leave prevents many workers from being able to book an appointment, much less deal with potential side effects. This then places them in a double-bind of being more likely to get sick from exposure – and even then, “test hesitancy” has arisen from workers’ fear of having to miss a paycheck to isolate.

Furthermore, vaccine skeptics are more likely to trust the advice of their primary care doctor. For everybody in the U.S. to have access to primary care and a doctor with whom they can talk through their concerns, we would need universal healthcare. 

That for-profit social media platforms, Fox News, and money-hungry grifters have had far more impact on public health than any government institution speaks to the glaring lack of any credible public health authority in the U.S. Public health is not possible without reliable information, and to this day, it is exceedingly difficult to find guidelines on how to stay safe. Scientific information and debates must be in the public domain – not patented or behind paywalls, not influenced by for-profit interests or partisan politics, but fully available and accessible to ordinary people. This information would be the basis on which to form guidelines on social distancing, mask wearing, and restrictions.

Public health authorities broadly were already inadequately resourced to respond to the pandemic, and the backlash has resulted in more than half of U.S. states passing laws to restrict public health authorities’ powers, and an exodus of workers from the field. Public health needs to be transformed to be democratic, transparent, and fully-funded by taxes on the rich and corporations who’ve had a field day piling wealth over the course of the crisis. The same must be done in public schools, as fully funding public education is not only critical to give schools the resources to keep students and educators safe, but it is also crucial to raising a generation capable of evaluating scientific information. 

A genuine public health infrastructure could be proactive in ways our current system could not fathom. When a new variant begins to spread and hospitalizations increase, instead of being covered up by authorities dragging their feet for short-term convenience or used as an opportunity for Senators to sell their stock, batches of tests should immediately be sent to households and open discussions in schools in workplaces should be held to formulate a rational collective response. One-sided and impersonal ads and billboards have not worked; we need to facilitate genuine engagement with the common goal of protecting public health and living conditions for working people.

The burden has fallen overwhelmingly on individuals to wade through this mess and find ways to protect themselves from the virus. Too many have had to decide for themselves how to social distance, wear masks, scramble to get tests, to manage work and life responsibilities when exposed to COVID or experiencing symptoms. A collective health infrastructure based on the needs of working-class people could provide worlds above what we currently have. It is tragic that this debate has revolved around pitting working people against one another, and that the ruling class has leaned on this, because only a united movement of working people can create a better future. The left and labor movement use the lessons learned through COVID to prepare for inevitable future battles where we will need to fight ferociously for the things working people need.