As the nation hunkers down and follows social distancing rules — mostly — I have to wonder how the most powerful country on Earth is suffering the most during this coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
The United States has the most confirmed cases and deaths so far of any country in the world, surpassing even China. What went wrong?
In the first crucial weeks and months of the pandemic, the American people were told by pundits on the Left and Right to not be afraid. Wedded to their respective ideologies, the media reassured the public that the catastrophe unfolding in China would not reach their shores, that their lives would continue on as before. How misguided were their claims, and how horrible were the consequences.
Both sides of the ideological spectrum are guilty. The first denials came in late January and early February. With an air of moral and intellectual superiority, articles from the Left in the Washington Post and The New York Times minimized the threat posed by the virus. Repeatedly quoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures, their main argument was that the average flu is deadlier than COVID-19.
The source for this nonchalance was largely ideological. The Left seemed to be more concerned with political correctness and opposing President Donald J. Trump rather than acknowledging the coming pandemic. Fearful of talking about COVID-19 as an external threat, which Conservatives would more likely focus on, they warned instead that the “real danger” was paranoia and racism, not the virus itself. Banning foreign travel would be considered “racist” against Asians.
Granted, cases of anti-Asian discrimination and attacks have recently jumped, but that is strictly a secondary issue during this pandemic in my opinion.
It would be wrong to assume that this casual dismissal of the pandemic by the Left was harmless. For the days before Rutgers University closed, many of my Liberal classmates foolishly believed that they were invincible to COVID-19. When pressed about the dangers of the virus, they retorted that the average flu was more of a concern and that it does not affect young people, seniors be damned.
It was a mixture of ignorance and narcissism that may have needlessly spread the infection.
At around the same time, the Right-wing media was busy minimizing the COVID-19 threat as well. The mere fact that Liberals were mentioning COVID-19 sent Conservatives into a fit. On Fox News, pundits relentlessly portrayed the coming pandemic as a Democratic hoax, because, of course, what else could it be? Liberals on CNN and MSNBC were overplaying the threat of COVID-19, according to the Right. It was just another plot to tarnish Trump’s reputation and bring him down, like the “phony” impeachment attempt by the Democrats.
Like the Left, Conservatives were initially opposed to warning the public about COVID-19 mainly due to ideological concerns. Conservative media did not take the time to think clearly about the pandemic. Reflexively, they judged COVID-19 to be part of a Liberal strategy of subterfuge against the president, in which Liberal media would allegedly overplay small issues.
The damage this false portrayal by the Right caused cannot be understated. Several states, all Right-leaning, initially refused to implement a stay-at-home order in order to limit the spread of the virus. Conservatives in these states, taking their cues from shows like Fox and Friends, spurned social distancing rules. This likely caused the pandemic to spread faster and overwhelm these states, leading to unnecessary deaths.
Now, the media narratives have changed. While both sides of the partisan divide have accepted the brutal onslaught of COVID-19, the Left and the Right have taken different stances. Liberal media is rightfully focusing on the Trump administration’s bungled attempts to handle the pandemic and the rising death toll, while Conservative media is busy shifting blame to China’s deceptive attempts to manage COVID-19, as well as focusing on the potential economic depression created in the pandemic’s wake.
Both have collective amnesia of their initial take on COVID-19.
Of course, there were Liberals and Conservatives that did sound the alarm early on. On the Right, Tucker Carlson — an outlier on Fox News — warned that the pandemic would be more dangerous than expected, going against the prevailing opinion spouted by other Fox hosts at the time. On the Left, Democrat surrogate Chelsea Clinton also warned that Trump’s actions would make the effects of the pandemic worse than they had to be.
Unfortunately, though, most Liberals and Conservatives were too busy downplaying the pandemic in its early stages to make any sizeable difference. Their respective commitments to their clannish political ideologies limited the public’s ability to recognize the threat of the pandemic and mobilize. Despite their professed differences, the Left and the Right acted generally the same, narrow-minded and irresponsible.
The inability of Liberals and Conservatives to see past their ideologies at this moment of unparalleled crisis is a testament to the deterioration of this country’s social cohesion. This should be the time for both sides to finally come together and prioritize the interests of the American people.
Alexander Eid is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies. His column, "Keeping it Real," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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