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Op-Ed: Social distancing and the political divide in the U.S.

President Donald Trump will always be remembered as the president who refused to acknowledge the dangers of the looming health crisis that turned out to be a global pandemic.

Early on, in late January, when the rest of the world was preparing for COVID-19, Trump dismissed the virus as something similar to the seasonal flu — nothing that Americans should be overly concerned about and something that would quickly pass.

By late February, even as the number of cases in the United States began to grow, our president accused political opponents and the media of pushing a “new hoax,” while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of an incoming “disruption to everyday life.”

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right?” Trump lamented during a campaign rally in South Carolina days after the CDC warning. “Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it.”

And while staunch Trump supporters hung on the president’s rosy outlook and upbeat remarks, the virus spread, moving insidiously from person-to-person. Then, in mid-March, Trump abruptly changed course, tweeting “SOCIAL DISTANCING!” to his more than 70 million Twitter followers.

Tourists enjoy Miami Beach  ignoring recommendations to keep their distance as coronavirus grips the...

Tourists enjoy Miami Beach, ignoring recommendations to keep their distance as coronavirus grips the globe

A divide with deadly consequences
Social distancing has proven to be a common-sense practice to limit the spread of a contagion. Historically, social distancing was used in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the 1916 New York City polio epidemic, and more recently, in 1995, when a cordon sanitaire was used to control an outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Kikwit, Zaire.

Politics should not be a part of any decisions made by our leaders in responding to a public health threat. But, sadly, that is exactly what has happened. Worried over the economic consequences of a lockdown and quarantines, Trump fiddled with the idea of seeing “businesses and churches reopened by Easter.”

However, on Sunday, the president extended social distancing guidelines through April as public health officials warned the death toll could exceed 100,000. By doing so, Trump has left mixed messages for his followers to sort through. Take Tate Reeves – the governor of Mississippi.

According to the Daily Beast, Tate’s actions have mirrored Trump. But unlike the president, who has no direct control over the decisions states and municipalities make, the results of Reeve’s approach are out there for everyone to see. Tate says he’s heeding the guidance of state health officials and Vice President Mike Pence himself, who told him directly during a recent conversation that the Trump administration is not recommending a blanket shutdown.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces plans to convert the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan's W...

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces plans to convert the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side into a field hospital
Bryan R. Smith, AFP

New York City reports to fines
In New York City, an epicenter for the coronavirus in the U.S., Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that New York City residents who break social distancing rules will be subject to fines up to $500.

“You’ve been warned and warned and warned again,” the mayor said during a Sunday press conference. “They’re going to give people every chance to listen, and if anyone doesn’t listen, then they deserve a fine at this point,” de Blasio said. “I don’t want to fine people when so many folks are going through economic distress, but if they haven’t gotten the message by now, and they don’t get the message when an enforcement officer’s staring them in the face … that person then deserves the fine, so we’re going to proceed with that.”

On the other side of the coin is Dennis Prager, a conservative commentator. He has even compared outbreak-mitigation efforts to Nazi appeasement: “That attitude, that the only value is saving a life … it leads to cowardice. It has to. No one can die? Then it’s not a war.”

Terry Trahan, a manager at a cutlery store in Lubbock, Texas, acknowledged that a certain “toxic tribalism” was informing people’s attitudes toward the pandemic. “If someone’s a Democrat, they’re gonna say it’s worse,” he said, “and if someone’s a Republican, they’re gonna say it’s bad, but it’s getting better.”

It still amounts to putting our political beliefs aside and doing what has proven to work in mitigating the dangers of the virus. “This is a pandemic, and shouldn’t be played out as a skirmish on a neighborhood playground,” Dina Borzekowski, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, recently told Stat.

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Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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