As a form of identity politics, the coronavirus pandemic works in unusual yet painfully familiar ways.
For example, the widely reported divide between Blacks and whites in willingness to be vaccinated appears to pale next to differences between political partisans.
While differences in access to vaccines continue to be a major challenge, the gap appears to be closing between Black and white Americans in their eagerness to get the shot, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
Among those who responded, 73% of African Americans and 70% of white Americans said they either planned to get a COVID-19 vaccine or already had done so.
Only 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get the shot. Latino respondents were slightly more reluctant with 37% saying they wouldn’t get the jab, compared with 63% who either had or intended to get it.
As the vaccine becomes more widely available, I hope that gap between people of color and non-Hispanic whites closes as the holdouts realize that they have better odds of staying alive – and helping their friends and relatives to survive – with the shot than without it.
I feel the same about Republican hesitance. Americans of all ages, education levels, genders, races and political parties say they’re more likely than not to get the coronavirus vaccine – except self-declared members of the Grand Old Party.
Vaccine hesitancy is higher among white Republicans than any other demographic group, and it hasn’t been improving much as the vaccination effort continues, according to various polls.
When Gallup, for example, asked respondents whether they would agree to get vaccinated if the vaccine were available to them right now, the partisan gap stood at 40 points (91% for Democrats and 51% for Republicans) in February.
But as much as Republicans tend to underestimate the coronavirus danger, Democrats are more likely to exaggerate the threat, according to a poll by Gallup and Franklin Templeton. That can be just as damaging to the public’s ability to make smart choices about the danger.
More than one-third of Republican voters, for example, said that people without COVID-19 symptoms could not spread the virus and that COVID-19 was killing fewer people than the seasonal flu. Those beliefs are as wrong today as they were when then-President Donald Trump stated them more than a year ago.
But when Democrats were asked how often COVID-19 patients had to be hospitalized, almost 70% said – or guessed – 20% or more when the actual hospitalization rate is less than 5%. We all have a lot to learn.
The gap between science and whatever world politicians live in was illustrated quite loudly in a House hearing last week to discuss the nation’s mitigation measures. Ohio Republican Jim Jordan’s passions were blazing as he pressed immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, a Biden chief medical adviser, for a pandemic exit date.
“What measure, what standard, what objective outcome, do we have to reach before Americans get their liberty and freedoms back?” he declared in his characteristic rapid-fire, made-for-TV fashion. “... First Amendment rights,” and rights to attend church, petition one’s government, freedom of the press and freedom of speech have “all been assaulted.”
He might as well have said, “Give me back my right to get sick.”
“I don’t look at this as a liberty thing,” Fauci replied as Jordan interjected, “That’s obvious.”
Committee chair Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, finally blew the whistle.
“You need to respect the chair,” she said, “and shut your mouth.”
The moment went viral on late-night talk shows and the web, and played well, I’m sure, with the side of Jordan’s conservative base that sees the federal guardians of public health as some sort of deep state conspiracy to rob us of our freedoms.
Instead we need the best, up-to-date information we can get regarding a disease about which science professionals are learning more every day.
Many of those lessons come to us from what has often been called the “laboratory of the states,” where, despite Jordan’s rant about dictatorial powers, some Republican governors, in particular, have been pushing the envelope by lifting restrictions on their own.
For example, in Texas, where more than a month has passed since Gov. Greg Abbott ended virtually all statewide pandemic restrictions, the worst predictions of a new surge in cases have not come true – so far.
Experts are divided on why that happened and warned that it might not last. But let’s keep our fingers crossed – and focus our fight on the coronavirus, not each other.
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