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CV Commentary: The Politics Of A Virus

Robert Smith headshot
Robert Smith

The following commentary was written by Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.  

I never would have thought it possible. That the devastating and very real COVID 19 Pandemic would become such a political football. Of course COVID 19 is a highly contagious and deadly virus that has quickly spread across the world and this Spring found its way to the United States.

The virus spread rapidly and continues to spread. In its wake tens of thousands of Americans have died and the efforts to contain the virus have led to widespread closures of schools, parks, businesses and government.

The US economy is reeling from its impact, millions are unemployed, and there is great uncertainty about when things will ever return to normal. During the nationwide lock down to prevent the spread of the virus citizens were faced with federal guidelines and state emergency orders to shelter in place, only essential businesses were allowed to open and social distancing became the norm.

Story after story told the news about the severity of the virus, an overwhelmed medical community, economic disruption and decline, the beleaguered government response, selected outbreaks across the country, the search for a cure and heart wrenching stories about families and loved ones impacted by this deadly virus. And those stories continue until today. 

Now that we are in May, it is probably accurate to say citizens across the country are frustrated with being under stay at home orders, not being able to shop and obtain basic services, unable to hold parties, plan family gatherings, eat at restaurants, catch a movie, attend sporting events, celebrate graduations, travel on vacations or worship in church services. 

The goal of these efforts the medical community tells us is to minimize person to person contact and hence stall the spread of the virus. Experts warn us that if we don’t take these efforts the virus will continue and wreak even more havoc on the health and well-being of the nation. In the meantime, protests have erupted in Illinois and in many states calling for an end to stay at home orders and for reopening businesses.

Somewhat ironically, all these social distancing efforts that are coming to an end in many places, seem to be working. The spread of the disease is slowing and there appears to be a flattening of the curve (of cases). At the same time, certain states have begun to loosen restrictions on gatherings and travel. In these states, businesses shuttered by the Pandemic are now opening or soon will open. Stimulus checks to affected citizens are flowing and government assistance programs for various segments of the economy are poised to

I don’t think too many observers have characterized this in such bold pronouncements, but the Pandemic (or more accurately the response to the Pandemic) is essentially Democrats versus Republicans (inclusive of strong Trump Supporters).

If you look at the states involved in the debates about whether and how much to “open,” those lines are largely drawn according to political distinctions. The Blue States want to stay closed or open more gradually and the Red States want to open fully. Democratic governor’s take President Trump to task for not being prepared and not leading the nation at this difficult time. Republicans claim the President is handling the pandemic with flying colors. Some Republicans have advocated “punishing” Blue States for their opposition to the President and their efforts to remain closed (by withholding federal funding).

More broadly the President and many of his political operatives have boldly embraced the view that while more deaths would be tragic (maybe in the tens of thousands), it may be necessary to open the economy and return to normal. How did the response to the COVID 19 Pandemic get to this point?

It Is clear that both Democrats and Republicans are fixated on winning in the upcoming 2020 Presidential race. The race for the past two years has been a repudiation by the Democrats of the Trump agenda and right facing legislation, regulations, rules, appointments and policy positions. The Republican agenda has been one of blind obedience to Donald Trump regardless of the divisive, controversial, inconsistent and uneven directions in governmental and policy arenas. Agree or disagree with this assessment, that sets the big picture context for framing the COVID 19 Pandemic.

The reality of COVID 19 in political terms is that the strongest pillar that President Trump has to stand on is the economy. This despite his impeachment, seeming misrepresentation of facts, some questionable foreign entanglements, aides and operatives being jailed all around him and pronouncements seeming to endorse questionable conduct and sensibilities. The problem is President Trump’s biggest accomplishment has now evaporated in the midst of this crisis.

As the economy failed and the reality of the Pandemic set in, so too did questions about how we got to this point, what are we doing about it and when will it end? All of this has overshadowed the Trump Presidency.

What was a medical and epidemiological emergency was transformed into a Democrat versus Republican free for all. Now, I’ll admit maybe everyone already knew that and perhaps this is all too obvious.

But in the midst of a nationwide pandemic, somehow I was hoping that a tragedy like this would bring us all closer together. Just like the aftermath of 911 and countless times Americans have faced diversity. My goodness, what has happened to us?

Perhaps things are different with this emergency. It affects everyone, victims of this virus know no boundaries, it is invisible, and it is everywhere. Medicine and science tell us to stay at home, employ social distancing, avoid groups, and wear protective gear. The way to fight this is avoid one another and isolate those that are sick or infected. But these actions come at a cost, it affects our incomes, our relationships and our everyday lives. It is temporary, but that may mean one more month, two or three months, or maybe fall or later before things are back to normal.

Perhaps we should try to hang in there just a little bit longer. Ignoring medicine and scientific facts for any reason is reckless. To substitute medicine, the facts, and our well-being for politics or a political agenda is folly.

Let’s not replace common sense and good citizenship with partisan politics. I guess my overall point is I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat…I just care that you are my neighbor.

Stay safe and healthy!

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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