“When the pandemic is over” has been our country’s wishful refrain throughout the course of COVID-19 — but at every stage of the crisis, the “when” has changed. In the naive days of March and April, we thought we’d gain normalcy by summer. But the light at the end of the tunnel kept crawling away toward fall or winter. The development and approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines brought an inkling of hope until it became clear that the country was woefully unprepared for an efficient, organized rollout. A key reason for the American population’s misguided optimism was that our leaders — federal and local, blue and red — were not pessimistic enough. When we needed some doom and gloom, America’s leaders gave its citizens rose-tinted glasses instead.
In the postmortem of the pandemic, Americans’ blase attitude will likely be a main culprit for the US’s disastrous experience with the virus. Former President Trump, who failed to instill even a modicum of caution in February and early March last year, bears the most responsibility. As cases slowly crept up in the US, he insisted that the virus would miraculously disappear. Even as it ravaged coastal cities like New York and San Francisco in late March and early April, Trump persisted in his optimism and predicted a return to normalcy by Easter, despite consensus among epidemiologists that COVID-19 would be a long-term battle. While Trump was the worst, he was far from the only one who underestimated the virus at first. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s COVID-19 folk hero, recommended against wearing masks as late as March 8; in the same month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged his constituents to go out on the town. Americans of all persuasions, heeding the advice of their leaders, continued to normally live their lives as Italy and Spain entered public health crises.
Reality set in almost immediately in mid-March, as horrifying news of beyond-capacity hospitals in Italy spurred the US into action. Deaths mounted in coastal cities, but case growth in the Midwest and South — largely Trump constituencies, where the President’s lax attitude would hold more sway — was more sluggish. The overcrowded hospitals, mobile morgues and PPE shortages in cities like New York should have been proof of how a small number of cases can balloon into a crisis within a few short weeks. But lockdown fatigue, combined with Trump and the Republicans’ continuously cavalier attitude toward the COVID-19 threat, pushed red states to lift many of their restrictions on indoor, in-person activities in the late spring and early summer. In doing so, the leaders of these states communicated to their citizens that they could safely return to normalcy, since high-risk, in-person establishments were open again.
As one would expect, the red states that had evaded the surges places like New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts suffered earlier on became the country’s next COVID-19 epicenters. While some governors reinstituted restrictions, others did not, allowing COVID to spread uncontrollably. South Dakota, led by Trump loyalist Governor Kristi Noem, took one of the most hands-off approaches to the pandemic in the country, eschewing mask mandates and keeping bars open. In turn, South Dakotans have mirrored Noem’s cavalier attitude toward the virus. Now, about one in eight South Dakotans has tested positive, and data scientist Youyang Gu estimated that as many as two in five have been infected.
In our hyperpolarized political environment, it’s easy to blame these red state spikes on Trump supporters who believe COVID-19 is a hoax or buy the common GOP talking point that Democrats are using the pandemic to curb individual liberties, attack religion and sabotage Trump. But absent data on the political ideologies of the people infected with COVID-19, it’s safe to assume that many individuals who contracted COVID-19 after ignoring proper protocols were not deniers. For example, one Florida health care worker who had observed pandemic precautions for months contracted the virus after eating out with her friends when her state reopened restaurants in June. She said that the state reopening signaled that “everybody was fine” and inculcated an “out of sight, out of mind mentality.” Thus, she adopted a blase attitude and did something irresponsible because her governor, Trump loyalist Ron DeSantis, communicated to her that she had nothing to fear. Such was the case for countless other non-COVID-denying individuals across the country who ended up infected during the summer surges. But had restrictions remained in place, the government’s message would have been to stay home.
The nationwide surges in coronavirus cases in the fall and winter further demonstrate that conservatives were not the only ones who were excessively optimistic about COVID-19. By November, cases in just about every state began to skyrocket. In my home state of Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the union, daily case counts were higher than they had ever been before. Granted, testing and treatment was much improved, but the supposedly more responsible Democrats of Massachusetts were getting sick just as often as comparably-sized but deep-red Tennessee. In-person establishments like bars and restaurants remained open, likely communicating to Massachusetts’s residents that going out to eat — and perhaps doing other non-socially-distanced activities — was safe. Whether it was public or private gatherings that were fueling the surge is unclear. But the bottom line is that many of Massachusetts’s liberal residents did not fear the virus enough to eschew risky, in-person gatherings.
Moreover, the infamous surges due to widespread travel during Thanksgiving and Christmas were not primarily caused by COVID-19 deniers. Fatigue over restrictions was widespread; even the mayor of Denver, a Democrat who exhorted his constituents not to travel, flew across the country to visit his family. He said that he made his decision “as a husband and father.” In other words, his desire to see his family trumped the public health recommendations he himself promulgated. Of the millions of other Americans who traveled for the holidays, many were probably concerned about the virus — just not enough to miss out on being home for the holidays.
That Americans did not fear COVID-19 enough is a governance failure. The state’s job is not only to craft economic and social policy, but also to coordinate collective action by signalling what proper pandemic behavior looks like. Widespread information about COVID-19 and lukewarm exhortations to “stay safe,” while helpful, did not suffice, even for COVID-cautious individuals. Fatigued by pandemic restrictions, a well-informed person may go to a crowded restaurant with their friends against their better judgement. Stronger restrictions on travel and indoor gathering, as well as PR campaigns offering a gloomier pandemic outlook, would have been more effective — not only by restricting risky behavior, but also by sending a message that the virus was to be taken seriously. While the government did not need to (and fortunately did not) turn into a police state to control COVID-19, states could have spurred citizens to make the right choices by instilling a little more fear of the virus. Of course, the economic fallout of pandemic restrictions are immense, but the solution to that is simple: mandate masks and social distancing and pay people to stay home.
Of the many lessons the US should learn from this pandemic, proper messaging is among the most important. Early indifference about the virus allowed it to ravage coastal cities, and premature reopenings that yielded false optimism led to surges across the country. When the next pandemic comes, the government should find ways to ensure the population is properly wary of the pathogen. As long as the state does not induce mass hysteria, instilling a little fear and pessimism could work wonders.
Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.