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COVID shows polarized politics can kill, delaying pandemic exit

Jonathan Levin and Nic Querolo, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Thirteen months and two presidents into a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, toxic politics still bedevil effective policies against COVID-19 — an indication of the challenges the U.S. will face in any future pandemic.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat targeted in a kidnapping plot due to her early lockdown, has lost the will to impose new restrictions even as the virus surges there. In California, Republicans are pushing to recall Governor Gavin Newsom for his strict response. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who still eschews a mask mandate, is claiming vindication because his state’s death toll was lower than many Democratic bastions — making him an early favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

But as politicians jockey over whose states performed best, a key takeaway seems to be that the entire country fared worse than it should have.

Polarization, coupled with porous state borders, rendered the pandemic playbook less effective. Democratic states took more dramatic mitigation measures than Republican ones. In less homogeneous places, adherence to health advice was mixed, regardless of which party occupied the governor’s mansion.

Even the nation’s vaccination race against fast-spreading variants is shaped by party affiliation: About 29% of Republicans say they definitely won’t get the jab, compared with about 5% of Democrats and 9% of independents, according to a poll last month for the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.

“Something as simple as mask-wearing became so political,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “It became such a reflection of whose side you are on instead of, ‘We’re all in this together.’”


The ranking of states by deaths per capita defies tidy conclusions. If the numbers show anything, it’s that states aren’t directly comparable; they should be measured only against their unique expectations. Hawaii saw the least loss of life relative to its population — probably because it’s an island. No amount of restrictions can turn California into New Zealand. And the outcome in Florida was likely the product of its Sunshine State advantages as much as its governor’s policies.

There’s no better illustration than Michigan of how political divisions perverted the response to COVID-19. For the past month, Whitmer has rejected calls for new rules — a stark departure from her earlier approach — even as cases and hospitalizations surged. She advised Michiganders to avoid indoor restaurant dining for a few weeks and log into high-school classes from home, but stopped short of mandates.

The pressure on Whitmer has been intense. A year ago, then-President Donald Trump attacked Whitmer and tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Soon after, armed anti-lockdown protesters entered Michigan’s capitol, and the FBI said in October it had foiled an attempt to kidnap and possibly kill her.

“The governor of Michigan was surrounded,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which produces COVID-19 projections. “Even knowing the problem, even believing in science, she had kind of a rebellion at hand.”


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