Opinion | We shouldn’t be afraid to “politicize” coronavirus

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Promiti Debi | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

Apparently when President Donald Trump promised he would take an “America First” approach to governing the United States, he was being literal.

Since mid-April, America has led the world in the number of coronavirus deaths, with more than 83,000 Americans losing their lives. As a result, Republicans have understandably taken a lot of heat, as the party at the center of the American response to this unprecedented pandemic. Former President Barack Obama called the Trump administration’s course of action “an absolute chaotic disaster.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said we have to “shut this president up.”

Rather than responding to criticism that the Republican-led response has left too many Americans out to dry, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., retorted that these sentiments were merely attempts from political rivals hoping to tarnish the president’s reputation.

“The Democrats, it seems to me, want to turn the president’s handling of all this into a political liability for him,” McConnell said.

Throughout this pandemic, we have been told not to “politicize this virus” by various officials and world leaders. And that’s right — a state or organization’s political leanings shouldn’t affect the government’s willingness to protect it. What we should not be afraid to politicize, however, is dissent for the officials who are failing at keeping us safe. Brushing off genuine criticism by categorizing it as partisan bias is shielding politicians from essential accountability. We shouldn’t politicize the virus — but we should politicize our response to government inaction.

While Senate Republicans boasted a $2.2 trillion stimulus package as a centerpiece of their response, critics point out that this package pales in comparison to more expansive and effective packages around the world. While the U.S. plan offers a one-time $1,200 check to those who meet strict requirements, Great Britain, for example, covers 80% of unemployed workers’ salaries, up to $3,084 per month. Our neighbors to the north, in Canada, are getting $1,433 per month in unemployment relief for up to four months. Denmark is offering to cover between 75% and 90% of salaries, up to $3,288 a month.

These comparisons are not necessarily apples to apples, as the United States plan also attempts to increase government relief through unemployment insurance reform. However, a recent study found that archaic unemployment systems are preventing most of that money from actually reaching Americans. Even when accounting for these nuances, the national government is largely leaving citizens to fend for themselves.

Statistics show a person who contracts COVID-19 in the United States is six times more likely to die from the disease than their international counterparts — our death rate is 232 people per million residents, compared to the global average of 34 per million. Despite Harvard’s Global Health Institute proposing that the United States should perform more than 900,000 tests per day by May 15, less than 300,000 tests are actually taking place.

Regardless, President Trump’s job approval rating has surged and, according to a Gallup poll on May 5, is 49% — a tie for his highest-ever rating. The same poll found 93% of Republicans feel the president is doing a good job, even when the economic and public health statistics suggest otherwise.

The Trump administration and its devout supporters in Congress are not entirely to blame for the outbreak’s rampage in the United States. But the idea that this insufficient and outright irresponsible response would have a positive effect on the president’s approval rating is indicative of a larger issue. It is not a matter of a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of a backbone.

Statistics cannot be written off as political gibberish, yet somehow the president has found a way to convince supporters that these haunting numbers constitute a “spectacular job” on his part. He has persuaded nearly half of Americans to value his rhetoric over scientific reality by categorizing genuine criticism as indicative of a malicious political vendetta.

Trump has long convinced supporters to overlook political fumbles for the sake of economic growth — a strategy he is doubling down on during the pandemic.

Chris McGreal, an author and correspondent for The Guardian, interviewed a series of Midwestern voters who checked Trump on the ballot in 2016. Most said their support for Trump rests in their confidence for the American economy he’s boosted, or the jobs he has created. It’s perhaps an enticing argument — but at what cost?

Across the country, 49% of Americans are doubling down on beliefs that a Trump win — one that, rather than concentrating resources on public health, prioritizes the economy, American foreign interests and traditional values above all else — is more important than the general public’s most basic safety. This administration has brushed off statistics that prove it failed to prevent, or outright enabled, a pervasive, volatile pandemic.

Trump will write off dangerous, nonsensical drivel — suggestions to inject disinfectant that resulted in a spike in calls to Poison Control, recommendations to use hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment despite possible heart effects, jabs at the reporters who are unafraid to call him out — as sarcasm or jokes.

Somehow, the administration has ultimately avoided accountability from its own party by convincing Americans to stand by leaders regardless of their actions. But calling out wrongdoing in an unprecedented public health crisis does not contradict political leanings — the only thing it promotes is common sense. After all, the economy Trump promises will not be worth it if no one is healthy enough to experience it.

Trump and his team are pushing a narrative of Democrats versus Republicans. But in reality, this argument is about science versus speculation, safety versus ego and common sense versus Trumpian babble. Refusing to “politicize” this crisis as an inexcusable failure by the Trump administration is not chivalrous loyalty. Rather, sticking to party lines will only dig us deeper into this sinkhole — one that is on track to take us all down with it.

Julia writes primarily about politics and social issues. Write to Julia at JRK142@pitt.edu.

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