The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pandemic didn’t have to be politicized. One party is to blame for it.

Demonstrators gathered outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Sept. 16 to protest coronavirus vaccination and mask mandates. (Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

One day, the coronavirus pandemic will be over, even though that might seem like a far-off fantasy. There’s some reason to believe the delta variant has peaked, even though the United States is still averaging around 2,000 deaths per day, and if we’re lucky, we may be able to say in a year or so that it has receded to the point where it no longer determines the contours of our daily lives.

But none of us will avoid having our perspective on our country, the world and our relations to one another shaped by this long, dark period. When it’s over, we can’t forget what it taught us. And who it revealed people to be.

We have to remember that this was, above all, the politicized pandemic. And it didn’t have to be that way.

Consider this remarkable statistic from analyst Charles Gaba: In the bluest counties, since the beginning of July there have been approximately 9 covid-19 deaths per 100,000 population. In the reddest counties, there have been 47 deaths per 100,000 population.

The pandemic was unequally distributed at its outset, hitting places like New York particularly hard. But that was a matter of population density shaping pathways of infection. What’s happening now is in no small part a choice.

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We’re seeing it absolutely everywhere: In Congress, in your state legislature, at your local school board, in all the places where people interact and certainly in conservative media, much of which has become an engine of anti-vaccine lies and propaganda.

This politicization is being shaped not just by the right, but by the Trumpian political style of performative belligerence — in other words, being a jerk in the loudest and most public way you can. After watching so many videos of Donald Trump fans screaming at public officials over masks, no one is surprised when, after New York creates an indoor vaccination mandate, a huge group storms a food court, leading gleeful cheers of “F--- Joe Biden!” and “Trump won!”

All while hospitals in one place after another are overwhelmed with unvaccinated covid patients.

There has never been a national crisis into which politics didn’t intrude at least to some degree. But this pandemic is different in just how saturated it was with politics from its very outset. That’s the genesis of the story: How Trump and his administration downplayed, denied and mishandled the crisis in its early stages, all to gain political advantage they could have had by simply trying to make sure as few Americans died as possible.

They thought turning the pandemic into a partisan battle was the clever thing to do, and in some cases said so openly. Trump intentionally started fights with governors in the pandemic’s early stages, Jared Kushner said in the spring of 2020, so they could be the target of public anger. Then, when the pandemic ended and everyone went back to normal, it would be a political boon for Trump, because “the opening is going to be very popular.”

When Kushner said that, around 39,000 Americans had died of covid. At current rates we’ll hit 700,000 deaths a week from now.

Of course, both Democratic and Republican officials made mistakes along the way. Often it was because of uncertainty: Our understanding of the virus evolved over time, we didn’t always know which measures were necessary or effective, and public behavior is hard to predict. But only the right has shown such stunning denial, cynicism and indifference to human suffering.

Today, only a small number of Republican officials seem genuinely committed to minimizing the number of deaths and ending the pandemic. A much larger number of them treat vaccine denialism the way they do their base’s belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent: They indulge it, treat it with a wink and a nod, and find ways to thunder at President Biden for being too aggressive in his public health decisions. Which makes everything worse.

When we look back on this period, we should remember that there were plenty of countries where the pandemic wasn’t politicized the way it was here. They still suffered, as people did everywhere. They sometimes had disagreements about the best course of action at a particular moment.

But the pandemic didn’t tear them apart. It didn’t take their existing political divisions and crank them up to 11. It didn’t set their citizens against one another and cause angry confrontations in restaurants and grocery stores. Their most influential public figures didn’t try to make opposition to public health measures a core element of partisan identity. Their conspiracy theorists and quack cure purveyors were kept at the fringes, not given nightly forums on national television.

Like the idea of life after the pandemic, the thought of what could have been had we dealt with covid-19 sanely from the beginning seems like a fantasy. But it was possible — and nobody who prevented it from happening should be forgiven.