The Coronavirus Doesn't Care What Party Your Lungs Belong To

Hard as it may be, we need to leave politics out of this, for everyone's sake.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Public health scientists worked hard to name both the new coronavirus – SARS-Cov-2 – and the disease it causes – COVID-19. Names give the danger clarity, which eases some of our instinctive worry about anything not yet fully understood. Social scientists have done something similar for the other disease that's spreading, the fear. They have a framework for thinking about that spread, called the Social Amplification of Risk, the idea that how we receive and transmit information about a potential peril can create new risks all by itself. Our communications often amplify the danger.

Many sources contribute. The obvious one is the alarmism and drama of the news media. But the Social Amplification of Risk also tracks the role we all play in sharing information. The more constant and alarming our tweets and texts and posts and conversations, the more we too amplify fear. And the more we pay attention to every little last bit of news, the more we magnify our fears simply by our voluntary immersion in the 24/7 OMG-o-sphere.

But beyond that, there is a particular aspect of the Social Amplification of Risk in this case that is quite literally raising the risk for everyone. It’s the politicization of the issue, by all sides. We can't help doing it of course. These are political times, and we see things through tribal political lenses. But consider the implications of politicizing the coronavirus situation. It changes how we see the risk, and therefore how we behave.

Some on the right are playing down the risk, fearful that the social and economic disruption from the epidemic will hurt the president at the polls. Some on the left, hoping to do just that, are playing up the fear, particularly by hyping claims that the president is incompetent, even mentally unstable, and can't be relied on to keep us safe. The virus itself, of course, doesn’t care whether our lungs are Republican or Democrat. It’s only looking to burrow into our DNA and replicate. But our minds do. So when our tribal thought leaders say things like, “The virus is a Democratic hoax to get Trump out of office,” or “By ignoring science and cutting the budget Republicans have made things worse,” without thinking we adopt and share the view of our tribe. 

Here is how that makes things worse. A Reuters poll early last week found that while 4 in 10 people who identified as Democrats thought the coronavirus posed an imminent threat, only 2 in 10 Republicans did. Or look at these results from a survey taken later last week.

The first line, how much we worry about getting the disease ourselves or in our families, is less important. But how much we avoid gatherings or curtail our travel or minimize how much we go to public places like restaurants will help determine how rapidly the disease spreads. And that’s critical to the chances that you or a family member or friend will get sick, or maybe die, and to whether our hospitals are suddenly flooded by people who need advanced care to save their lives, some of whom may not be able to get it if too many really sick people all show up at once. Regardless of their political affiliation. (See this terrific visualization of the rate of spread depending on levels of "social distancing" by graphic journalist Harry Stevens at the Washington Post.) 

Here’s one tangible example of the harm this can cause. According to the Seattle Times, a Republican candidate for Washington state governor “spent Saturday rooting for a political rally of 250+ people to “stick our finger in the eye of Jay Inslee,” the Democratic governor who had banned gatherings of 250 in the state. This was literally a call to come to a large gathering and as a result directly increase the spread of a disease that is already making people in that area sick, solely in the name of politics

Politicized attacks from the left on the trustworthiness and competence of government leaders have their costs too. They add to our worries, and persistent above-normal anxiety leaves us in a constant fight or flight or freeze mode, one effect of which is to weaken our immune system. That too exacerbates the spread of coronavirus or any infectious disease.

The healthy thing about seeing all this through the lens of the Social Amplification of Risk is that, like the virus itself, such analysis is party-neutral. It doesn't care which side is saying what and makes no judgment about who is right or wrong. The only concern of this framework is to illustrate more clearly the impact all this communication has on how people feel, and how they behave. 

We are being asked to travel less, gather less, wash our hands, and cough into our elbows. We should also “wash” how we communicate because communication that spreads fear can spread harm too. Hard as it is to do in these political times, we should try to take the political perspective out of how we talk amongst ourselves about this health threat—in the name of our own health and of the common good.