The politicization of covid
By Dominik Stecula
After over 9 months of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the United States and over 400,00 lost Americans, the initial batches of the vaccine are being distributed throughout the
country. But, unfortunately, not everybody will be willing to take it and one of the important reasons will have to do with our toxic political landscape. At the time when strong partisan identities shape how Americans feel about an increasing number of issues, politicization of COVID, and science more generally, can be a major obstacle in vaccine adoption.
COVID, much like so many other issues of the day, has been politicized, and that makes science communication behind the vaccine difficult. Simply put, in our current political climate, the moment an issue enters the political arena, debilitating polarization follows. It doesn’t particularly matter if an issue is based in science, like vaccines, or whether it’s a moral issue like abortion, the same process tends to unfold. Because attachments to political parties are important aspects of our identities, and because public opinion tends to be driven by trusted elites, such as party leaders like Donald Trump or Joe Biden, what politicians say about an issue tends to drive what Americans think about it.
Take the example of global warming. With my co-author, Eric Merkley, we have studied how Americans polarized on climate change. What we found was that politicization of the issue played a key role. As climate change became more prominent in the media and in the minds of Americans, experts and scientists were featured in the news, but had to share space with politicians who increasingly took over coverage. In another study, we found that these messages from partisan elites, and especially from Democrats, played a key role in driving Republican climate skepticism. Because partisanship colors a lot of our perceptions of reality, messages from politicians tend to drown out any signals from scientists.
A contributing factor might also be the increasing politicization of science in general. Messages from scientists might be less persuasive to the most fervent of Republican voters, simply because they are increasingly viewed as part of the Democratic coalition. When in the spring of 2017, thousands of people across the country participated in the March for Science rallies, the effect of that was not a universal increase in support for scientists. Instead, liberals came to like scientists more, while conservatives liked them less. Prior to the 2020 Presidential election, leading scientific journals took an unprecedented step of endorsing Joe Biden and condemning Donald Trump for his administration’s hostile policies towards the scientific community. A growing number of scientists also ran for office, mostly as Democrats. This aligning of science with one political party, regardless of how justified on the merits, can backfire: as the public increasingly sees scientists as a constituency of the Democratic party, they might not only be less inclined to trust them, but also to treat them as an out-group. That might be a problem when messages from scientists are needed to persuade Americans to vaccinate against COVID.
It is important to highlight that, thankfully, opposition to vaccines is limited to a small number of Americans. Similarly, a small minority of Americans are misinformed about vaccines and their benefits. Most Americans also take COVID seriously and adhere to best public health recommendations. However, it is also true that COVID has been politicized in the US a lot more than in other countries, and that partisanship strongly affects not only beliefs about COVID but also behaviors. Current polling suggests a 20 percentage point gap in the intention to vaccinate between Republicans and Democrats. Despite remaining relatively high, public trust in Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC has been polarizing along party lines as well.
These developments are troubling, because to achieve levels of herd immunity necessary to protect us from COVID, we will likely need 60-70% of Americans to become immune through natural infection or vaccination. As my colleagues pointed out earlier this year, this means that twice as many Americans need to get a COVID vaccine than get a seasonal flu shot. To reach these numbers, continued politicization of COVID and the vaccine could be a major obstacle.
To avoid further politicization, non-partisan health experts should take the lead as messengers on this issue and as growing numbers of vaccines become available. Celebrities, and other non-political actors who are well known and widely trusted should also get involved in promoting the vaccine. Of course, because this is a major public health issue, it is inevitable that politicians will speak up. That is understandable. But when they do, it is important for the media to highlight general consensus among Democrats and Republicans about the importance of the vaccine, instead of fishing for partisan conflict or elevating fringe voices. Instead of focusing communications on the scorn of Republican “anti-science” politicians, it will be more productive to elevate the voices of those that take the scientifically sound positions. In general, the aim should be to not activate partisan identities when talking about the vaccine, but instead focusing on what unites us: the desire to put the pandemic behind us, so life can go back to normal and we can all spend time with our families and friends.
Of course, politicization of the vaccine is hardly the only obstacle that we’ll face. Misinformation, especially on social media, needs to be counteracted. Vaccine skeptics will need to be persuaded. There is a long road ahead for public health professionals, especially as more vaccine doses become available to the general public. But at a time when polarization affects so many issues, it is important to try to avoid, or at least limit it on yet another one.
Dominik Stecula is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.