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The partisan divide on covid spawns a new reaction: Shrugs

Registered nurse Monica Quintana dons protective gear before entering a room at the William Beaumont hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., on April 21. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
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I have been around the Internet long enough to know a troll when I see one. That is, I (like many of you, I’m sure) can spot an article that’s intended at least in part to get a rise out of someone. And a story published Monday morning by the Atlantic clearly meets that standard.

Written by a contributing editor for the website American Conservative named Matthew Walther, the article bears the unsubtle title, “Where I Live, No One Cares About COVID.” Walther’s not really presenting an argument, as such, but instead celebrating his community’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic: near-universal indifference. He describes his wife’s literal scoffs at articles recommending ways to tamp down on the spread of the virus over the holidays and details his neighbors’ indifference to simple precautionary measures such as wearing masks. Recommendations about slowing the spread of the virus are dismissed as governmental melodrama; the laissez-faire attitude of his community in “rural southwest Michigan” is celebrated as simple common sense.

“COVID is invisible to me except when I am reading the news,” he mocks, “in which case it strikes me with all the force of reports about distant coups in Myanmar.”

In the middle of the article there appears a parenthetical that has a very the-editor-thought-this-should-go-here feel: “For the purposes of this piece, I looked up the COVID data for my county and found that the seven-day average for positive tests is as high as it has ever been, and that 136 deaths have been attributed to the virus since June 2020.”

We don’t know what county this is, but the numbers and description align with St. Joseph County. It’s been lucky; despite its relatively low rate of vaccination, it’s only in the middle of the pack on per capita deaths since the pandemic began.

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It also preferred Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a 31-point margin last year. Michigan, like the country overall, has seen the pandemic shift from one where the effects are felt more broadly in blue counties to one where it’s Republican-voting counties that have been harder hit. If we break the pandemic into three phases — from the outset to the end of 2020, the first half of 2021 before vaccines were broadly available, and the period from July to now — we see that the most-red counties in Michigan went from having the third-most cases per capita to the most. While Biden-voting counties have seen large drops in their per capita rates of death, the decline in the most heavily Trump-voting counties has been far more modest.

This holds on the individual county level, as well. From the start of the pandemic (Phase I) to the most recent period (Phase III), there’s an obvious separation between blue and red counties in the state.

The chart for deaths looks similar. In other words: Yes, Walther’s clearly got a point. Places such as his simply aren’t worried about the pandemic, a pattern that has been consistent since the very beginning.

It’s interesting to consider variants on Walther’s headline, not to unnecessarily confuse him with discussion of variants. One might imagine an essay written in 1988: “Where I Live, No One Cares About AIDS.” Surely it would contain some brief aside a few hundred words in, relaying the number of local deaths from the disease before flipping back into jokes about the sorts of losers who wear condoms.

Of course, the difference here is in how the virus spreads. The indifference of Walther’s neighbors (and, of course, himself) means that the virus can spread more easily to people who may not be able to avail themselves of vaccines. His response is just: oh well.

Interestingly, he’s got company in that approach. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) gave an interview to Colorado Public Radio last week in which he waved away the idea that the state would impose a new mask mandate. Not because masks don’t work, which they do. Instead, Polis has simply decided to let those unwilling to take preventive action to avoid the virus fend for themselves.

Polis:

“The emergency is over. You know, public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that’s just not their job. Public health [officials] would say to always wear a mask because it decreases flu and decreases [other airborne illnesses]. But that’s not something that you require; you don’t tell people what to wear. You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it]. If they get frostbite, it’s their own darn fault. If you haven’t been vaccinated, that’s your choice. I respect that. But it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with COVID.”

There are obvious problems with this line of thinking. More spread in more places makes it more likely that even the vaccinated (who are better protected against both catching the virus and suffering its worst effects) might be at higher risk of contracting it. Polis quickly amended his comments to point out that he was speaking only about mandates at the state level (which doesn’t entirely comport with his original comments) but didn’t address those individuals who might not be able to receive a dose of the vaccine or who might be at risk anyway.

Nonetheless, you see the same shrugging. Oh, you don’t care about protecting yourself? So be it. Live your life and see what happens. This is precisely Walther’s argument, just offered with a different inflection.

Polis is not a moderate. He’s a liberal Democrat whose approach here seems in part to capture the sort of frustration with the unvaccinated that Walther’s essay is meant to prickle. Walther’s boasting about living his life the way he wants to and Polis is saying, sure, while you can.

It’s hard not to think that this might be the universal end point of this entire discussion. That those who can’t get vaccinated will be buffeted by those who won’t and those who already have been. Assuming that there’s no new variant that significantly erodes vaccination, we may just see a future where both left and right simply accept the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on Republican-voting places as how it goes.

The question that remains then, is the bleak one: How many people will die as a result?

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