During an appearance Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) disparaged coverage of his colleague’s death that focused on the virus.
“This is the left doing what the left does,” Roy said. “They’re politicizing this virus. Politicizing the death of a public servant. Here’s what people won’t say in the Nation or these leftist rags that are attacking congressmen like Ron Wright, is that for two years he’s been battling cancer. Bravely and courageously. His body was ravaged with cancer.”
For what it’s worth, The Washington Post’s article about Wright’s death begins: “Rep. Ron Wright (R-Tex.), who had received cancer treatment for years, died Sunday after being hospitalized with covid-19.”
There is nothing contradictory about acknowledging both that Wright had cancer and that his death followed his contracting the virus. “Adults of any age with the following conditions are at increased risk of severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19,” an informational page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states, before presenting a list of conditions that begins with cancer. We know that cancer is deadly by itself; we know, too, that covid-19 makes it more dangerous.
What’s particularly puzzling about Roy’s comments is this idea that mentioning Wright’s diagnosis is somehow partisan. This criticism emerged soon after the virus did, as then-President Donald Trump sought to deflect questions about his administration’s handling of the virus by accusing his opponents of attacking him unfairly. He actively sought to play down the threat posed by the virus to buttress the economy before his reelection bid, with the side effect that Republicans were much less likely than Democrats to consider the virus an issue that warranted concern.
We can see this in polling. Over the course of the year, Quinnipiac University regularly asked Americans how concerned they were about they or their families contracting the virus. In April, when Trump was briefly advocating restrictions of economic activity to contain the coronavirus, three-quarters of Republicans expressed some concern about falling ill from the virus. Over the next few months, though, concern faded as cases fell and Trump dismissed the idea that containment measures were necessary. Over the summer, as cases surged, so did Republican concern — but Americans overall were 20 points more likely to express concern than were Republicans.
Even if one thought that concern about the coronavirus was amplified in an effort to undercut Trump politically, it’s not clear why that would still be the case. Except that the virus, like so many things before it — climate change, gun ownership — is now heavily interlaced with partisan political opinion. Wearing a mask to slow the spread of the virus, something Trump tacitly discouraged, is a partisan marker. Noting that a member of Congress died after contracting the virus then becomes simply a left-wing smear.
That Republicans are much less likely to express concern about how the virus manifests in other problematic ways. Republicans are the most likely to say that they don’t plan to be vaccinated against the virus, a key step toward achieving saturation of immune individuals and therefore protecting the country broadly. In an Axios-Ipsos poll released Tuesday, more than 4 in 10 Republicans indicated that they have already returned to normal levels of in-person gatherings — an explicit rejection of a key tool for stopping the virus’s spread.
At the end of January, we reported that the numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in counties Trump won last year were higher on a per capita basis than the cases and deaths in counties Joe Biden won. In other words, Republican areas of the country had been hit harder by the virus relative to their populations.
For all of the focus on blue regions of the country early in the pandemic, the virus became deadlier in red areas in mid-December.
Framing it like this is obviously and immediately political, of course, but we do so to present evidence that the polarization of the virus has itself potentially contributed to its effects. It seems quite possible that decreased concern about the virus and a broader embrace of living life as normal have helped push the number of deaths in more-Republican areas higher. It seems possible, in other words, that actively dismissing the threat posed by the virus — a decision made explicitly by Trump — has led to more deaths than otherwise might have occurred.
Roy thinks it’s an attack on the right to note that a Republican member of Congress was one of hundreds of thousands of people with underlying conditions to die after contracting the virus. Wright’s death could be a moment for his peers to reinforce the need for Americans, particularly those most at risk, to take precautions against infection and to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But Roy instead frames Wright’s death as a partisan attack, amplifying the entrenchment of partisanship in the response to the virus.
And, the available evidence suggests, making it more likely, not less, that people will unnecessarily contract the virus — with sometimes tragic results.