The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why don’t Americans care about the pandemic anymore?

A million have died of covid-19. But the country is ready to just move on?

A line for free rapid coronavirus test kits in Philadelphia in December. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Comment

I may be just a small-town political scientist, but I reckon that telling Americans not to worry about something that worries them is usually a fool’s errand. Short of a comprehensive elite consensus, those preferences are unlikely to shift anytime soon. The thing about the American public is that their preferences are their preferences — they might seem misplaced, but they are nonetheless real.

Consider, for example, Americans’ concerns about inflation and the pandemic. The Pew Research Center surveyed Americans late last month, and the results are striking:

Does this rank ordering of problems make sense?

No doubt, inflation has run rather hot as of late. I have seen some economists suggest that the public is misunderstanding the sources of problem. This confuses the source of inflation with public concerns about it. Telling Americans that they should chill about inflation because it is due to supply-side concerns is not going to work. Americans do not care why there is inflation, they just care that it exists. Even if some of us have different policy priorities, inflation being the primary concern of Americans is understandable.

What is somewhat more baffling is the problem that came in dead last. According to the Pew report, “more than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, just 19% of Americans rate the coronavirus outbreak as a very big problem for the country, the lowest share out of 12 issues included in the survey.” Two years ago, that number was at 58 percent.

This seems … I don’t know, nuts? It is not like the pandemic has disappeared. The United States has just passed the mark of 1 million dead. Average new infections are still near 100,000 a day.

Furthermore, the problem might get worse as funding for additional coronavirus boosters stalls in Congress. According to NBC News’s Shannon Pettypiece, “the federal government doesn’t have enough money to begin contract negotiations with Pfizer and Moderna for new versions of vaccines the companies are developing for the fall. The government would need to secure contracts for those vaccine doses in the coming weeks if it is to ensure enough supply for the entire country.”

The result could be a situation in which the federal government rations the vaccines for only the highest-risk Americans. This could be a big deal four months from now. As Pettypiece reports, “projections by public health officials inside and outside the administration suggest the country is likely to experience another surge in cases in the fall and the winter as immunity wanes and the coronavirus is expected to continue mutating.”

A surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths might cause more Americans to be concerned about the pandemic come September. Still, after two-plus years of enduring this pandemic, one wonders whether Americans have simply adapted to the notion that periodic covid flare-ups are part of daily existence. Those who have resisted virus vaccinations simply do not care. The rest of the country might no longer care what happens to people who have ignored entreaties about getting vaccinated for 18 months. The development of Paxlovid and other therapies has lessened the cost of developing covid-19. And finally, the elimination of mask mandates across a wide swath of the country means that the coronavirus can be out of sight as well as out of mind.

I can propose this explanation as a political scientist. Still, the failure to recognize and prepare for a problem guaranteed to resurface in the second half of this year seems like a failure at both the elite and mass public level. Leaders and experts have lost the ability to educate the public — and the public simply no longer cares to be educated.

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