How the politicization of COVID endangered our lives and democracy
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The federal COVID-19 public health emergency is coming to an end today.
But as we look back at the three-plus years of the pandemic, did we miss the opportunity to best protect our country?
From the underselling of COVID’s danger from the top:
“I knew having seen patterns of behavior in the past on other topics and issues that I had lived in throughout the Trump administration, I knew where this was going and it was not going to be good,” Olivia Troye says.
To how that shaped Americans’ response to the pandemic:
“It turns out that partisanship just swamped everything else as early as March of 2020,” Shana Gadarian says.
Today, On Point: How the politicization of COVID endangered our lives and democracy.
Olivia Troye, former homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus advisor for Vice President Mike Pence.
Shana Gadarian, professor and chair of the political science department at Syracuse University. Co-author of Pandemic Politics: The Deadly Toll of Partisanship in the Age of COVID.
PLOS One: “Partisanship, health behavior, and policy attitudes in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic” — “To study the U.S. public’s health behaviors, attitudes, and policy opinions about COVID-19 in the earliest weeks of the national health crisis (March 20–23, 2020).”
TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: It’s therefore with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Earlier this week, more than three years after the first declared COVID a pandemic of global and historical scale. In the United States, the federal public health emergency declaration here ends today.
White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha:
ASHISH JHA: A country can’t be in emergency mode forever.
CHAKRABARTI: President Biden signed the declaration end earlier this year, a GOP led resolution passed the House despite almost 200 House Democrats voting against it. It passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote. And practically speaking, the end of the public health emergency, as outlined in that resolution, also ends a number of federal programs, including waivers for federal health programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP. But on a political level, today’s action isn’t much of a change at all. Because one of the strongest forces that drove America’s pandemic response is still with us. And it’s stronger than ever. Partisanship.
For a moment, let’s go back to January 31st, 2020. Then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declares COVID a national health emergency.
ALEX AZAR: The actions we have taken and continue to take, complement, complement the work of China and the World Health Organization to contain the outbreak within China.
CHAKRABARTI: On February 26th, 2020, then-President Donald Trump compared the virus to the flu.
DONALD TRUMP: It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger, it may get a little bigger, may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens. But regardless of what happens, we are totally prepared.
CHAKRABARTI: But behind the scenes, as later revealed by reporter Bob Woodward, President Trump knew more than he had told the American people.
TRUMP [Tape]: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down. Yes, because I don’t want to create a panic.
CHAKRABARTI: So this might be the first moment, again revealed later, about how both political leadership and deep partisan divides paved the way to this grim tally. More than 1.1 million Americans now dead from COVID. So with the knowledge that another pandemic, another public health disaster will eventually come, how should we understand the role partisanship played under both the Trump and the Biden administrations? What should we do to prevent it from being such a deadly force next time?
Well, Olivia Troye joins us today. She’s a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser. She was also on the White House coronavirus task force, where she advised former Vice President Mike Pence. She resigned from the Trump COVID task force in August 2020 and has since gone on to become the CEO of a group called People’s Courage and co-founder of a bipartisan PAC called Mission Democracy. Olivia, welcome back to On Point.
OLIVIA TROYE: Thank you. Hi, Meghna. It’s good to be back with you again.
CHAKRABARTI: And also with us today is Shana Gadarian, professor and chair of the political science department at Syracuse University. Professor Gadarian, welcome to you.
SHANA GADARIAN: Hi, thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Olivia, I actually want to start with you and something that you posted on Twitter today when you told folks you were going to be on the show. You said this is a hard and emotional topic for me for so many reasons. And is that particularly true for today and this official end of the public health emergency in the United States?
TROYE: You know it is. … When I think about today and how monumental it is and what we’ve all sort of undergone the past couple of years, I thought sort of this day might never come, to be honest. And, you know, while it means that COVID isn’t over, right, COVID is around us all the time, still. I do think that this is a big deal, especially having worked on the task force at the very onset of this pandemic. And I think about all the lives lost, all the families that have lost loved ones, the hurt, the pain, the divisiveness, the anger that ensued during such a challenging time. And I think, you know, it took a very long time for me not to have nightmares after leaving the COVID task force.
TROYE: Yeah. This is something that I have actually, I’ve actually heard from others. That was a common theme for the doctors serving on the task force and others, where we look back on that. And for me, as someone who served in national security for so long, it was really about serving the American people. And when you think about how challenging that period was when I was there and the things that I saw. I’ll carry that for the rest of my life.
CHAKRABARTI: But you also said that you thought this day would never come, meaning that this day is also a good day, that we are able to declare at least an end for the need for the public health emergency tools that came with the declaration.
TROYE: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think we’ve come a long way and I think it is a good day. I am glad that we are kind of moving forward and we have moved forward as a society. You know, I think things are finally getting back to normal. I think it’s good. You know, I still have that hesitation. I still have those moments of, you know, sort of uncertainty when you walk into a crowd or I go to a concert, I’m like, wait a second. Just because it’s so surreal. It’s just a weird feeling and sensation.
But certainly it’s a good day. And we can’t remain like this forever. And look, we’ve got vaccines. We’ve got all the therapeutics now. We have tools to protect ourselves that we didn’t have at the very start of this.
CHAKRABARTI: Of course, even in light of that, there are many, many people who think that the Biden administration should not have declared the end to the federal public health emergency, because, of course, COVID is, as you know, as you said, still with us and in fact, will always be with us. It’s a disease that’s not going anywhere. We’ll talk more about even the continued divides here a little later in the show.
But Professor Gadarian, before we get down into sort of the analysis of partisanship and the role that it played in our public health response over the past three years, I actually just wanted to start with a similar check in with you. How has your life changed over the past three years and how do you see this day in particular?
GADARIAN: Sure. That’s a great question. So in spring of 2020, I wasn’t serving in the White House. I was teaching Intro to American Politics at Syracuse University. And in the start of the semester, we started talking about impeachment. Remember that? And then over the course of the semester, we started to talk more about the Democratic primary. And then by the end of the semester, my students were at home. I was at home with my three kids. My husband was working at home, and I had started this project on the pandemic.
And so for 18 months, my co-authors and I collected data and analyzed data. And it’s been a crazy couple of years, to be honest. And I’m happy that my children are all back in school and that our students at Syracuse have been in their classrooms and they’re able to have what is a, you know, relatively normal college experience. And to me, this doesn’t actually feel like the end, right? I mean, I think it’s the end of the declaration.
But I think there will be reverberations of this period. We see it in our classrooms. We see it in our voting. I think there will be long term consequences of COVID. And I think we don’t know what they are yet. And so while this is an important day and I think it’s worth thinking about, I think there will be other consequences that we haven’t even considered yet in terms of, you know, the long tail of the pandemic.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we’ve invited you both here today because, you know, Professor Gadarian, you wrote this book about the deadly toll of partisanship in the age of COVID. And we wanted to hear more about the evidence that you find for that. And Olivia brings to us that first person experience of having been on the White House COVID task force in the early months of the COVID pandemic, just to sort of guide us through what she saw regarding partisanship in the response, the early response.
So, Olivia, let me ask you, remind me … the task force was formed, what, in January of 2020?
TROYE: It was. And that was when the first meeting started. And then Vice President Pence was signed to be the lead of it in late February.
CHAKRABARTI: And you were an advisor to him from the start of the formation, from his participation on the COVID task force in the Trump White House.
TROYE: Correct. I was actually attending the meeting in January. It was my responsibility to cover it.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, great. So when did you first notice or observe that partisanship was a part of the decision-making process, or had sort of entered the room?
TROYE: I would say it was probably late January. We had been trying for quite some time to get traction internally in the White House to talk about the importance of this topic, because there had been intelligence reports coming, that were coming in from the intelligence community talking about how bad things were looking in China. And we had a tough time getting the attention of the president. Look, I personally had a tough time getting the attention of the vice president. It was the start of an election year. And they were very, very much focused on that.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gadarian, you’ve done these sorts of repeated surveys of people over the first year of the pandemic. When did you first field your surveys?
GADARIAN: Our first wave of this panel survey, which we did six times, was in March of 2020.
CHAKRABARTI: In March of 2020. Okay. So we’re going to come back to you in a moment. But Olivia, tell me a little bit more. … You had said you had a tough time getting people’s attention, but what else was happening that made you think that again, partisanship was playing a bigger role here?
TROYE: Yeah, well, we were having meetings at the time, and certainly it was being taken very seriously across the U.S. government and the interagency, especially on the National Security Council. What I’ll say is that as we sort of move into the February timeframe, there was tension. Look at President Trump at the time. He knew the severity of what was happening in China.
But, you know, we were also in trade talks with China at the time, and he did not want to derail that agreement. I remember him being very sympathetic to China at the time. It’s chilling for me when I hear those clips, where he talks about him knowing. Because he knew the day he went out on, what, February 26, when he announced that Pence was going to run the task force. He had been told that this was very different than the flu and that it was worse than the flu. He knew.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gadarian, you had this really interesting idea in 2020 to field recurring surveys among several thousand Americans in the middle of the pandemic. And the first one, as you said, was in March. What were you asking people?
GADARIAN: Sure. So my co-authors and I had a series of questions we asked about health behaviors. So what are these things that you’re doing to keep yourself safe from the pandemic? We had a series of questions about people’s attitudes about government policy and what they would like to see, things like more free testing should we pay people to stay home. We had some questions about who people were blaming for the COVID response and who they were giving credit to. So a whole range of things that we were asking about.
CHAKRABARTI: What did you find from the from that first survey? What were people thinking doing and how were they behaving in March of 2020?
GADARIAN: Sure. Great question. So we asked a series of questions again about people’s health behaviors. Are you washing your hands more? Are you looking for information? Are you going to the doctor? So there’s a range of things people are much more likely to say, yes, I’m washing my hands more. Yes, I’m staying home. And you can see across lots of different behaviors. Most people are saying that they’re doing the things the CDC was requesting people do at that time.
But at the same time, there’s variation across people’s own individual partisanship in whether or not they say they’re doing things like washing their hands. So Democrats are always more likely to say that they’re doing these protective health behaviors than Republicans. Even though there’s a majority of both groups, and independents always kind of fall in the middle. But there’s this gap between Democrats and Republicans that we see as early as March of 2020 that isn’t accounted for, by things like where people live or how many COVID cases are in their area. It really is about their identity with the party.
CHAKRABARTI: And how did you determine that? It’s about the identity of the party.
GADARIAN: Sure. I mean, we have a lot of information about the respondents to these surveys based on the survey data. Right. So we know where they live. And so we can account for the policies in their area. We know how many COVID cases are in the zip code where they live. We can compare Republicans and Democrats in the same places.
So we know that the differences that we see across them are not really about Republicans and Democrats just living in different places or having different experiences. It really is not. We can control for education, for people’s risk perceptions. It really comes down to once you include all of those things in a statistical model, the partisanship pops out as the most strong and consistent predictor of health behaviors, of attitudes across many different measures that we have.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Olivia, I want to go back to, again, your sort of insider experience here. First of all, tell me, you know, what were you seeing on the task force in March of 2020? Because by that time, just to remind folks, because maybe I don’t blame people, too, if they want to forget, but like Italy had been entirely shut down.
I mean, COVID was definitely spreading around the world. In the month of March, the U.S. National Emergency Declaration was made. President Trump did sign that $50 billion bill to give federal resources to combat coronavirus, there was a relief package. I mean, there was a lot going on. So what was happening, you know, in those meetings in the White House?
TROYE: Yeah, there were a lot of debates happening, I will be honest, behind the scenes. And I think what happened is that while we knew that this virus was serious, we knew that it was here and we knew that it was going to be bad. I think there were debates on masks. There were debates on look, we botched the testing. That was one of the very, very hard things that went wrong at the onset. Was that the tests weren’t working.
But what I saw was, towards the end of February and when Dr. Messonnier went on TV and spoke very truthfully about how severe this was going to be, that is when Vice President Pence got appointed to lead the task force because they wanted to control the messaging. But what was very concerning was that the messaging, the control of it, also meant that they were also impacting the CDC directly in guidelines and things … political people had no business intervening.
This was not based on science or facts. They were bullying the doctors. They were not letting the usual process for the CDC and for scientists and for doctors to weigh in. Who really are experts at this, to really get that truth out. And I think a lot of it, they were watching the stock market numbers. I remember that the day the stock market fell, they were pretty angry about that. And it was a discussion, they were convinced that President Trump was on a trajectory to win later that year for the election and those numbers were based on the economy and jobs. And they knew that this was going to be bad for the economy.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re never going to have uniform agreement on any kind of, you know, high level task force like this, especially in the middle of an emergency. And in fact, disagreement sometimes is healthy in terms of vetting, you know, good ideas and policies so that the best decision making is the outcome. … But you’re saying that’s not what you were seeing here? Because it sounds like you were saying that in the end, what emerged was what triumphed were decisions made around an election cycle rather than a pandemic response?
TROYE: Yes, that’s exactly what was happening. And, look, the doctors were coming to work in agreement. They were having conversations. Dr. Brooks, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Hahn, who was the head of the FDA at the time, there was consensus at times in these meetings. But what would happen is that we’d go into the briefing room or the press room, even Vice President Pence would come out. I wrote a lot of those talking points at the beginning. They were factual, they were informative.
And then somewhere along the way, especially in late March or April, the tone of those talking points began to shift. And then Trump starts attending these press conferences. And what he’s saying is not reflecting what is going on behind the scenes. And that caused a lot of frustration. A lot of the bullying happened then behind the scenes. And there were policies enacted that, quite frankly, the CDC didn’t agree with. Look, Title 42 is one of those policies.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gadarian, now let’s go back to you, because Olivia is giving us the perfect segue into trying to understand better how, let’s say, even those press conferences, right, that she pointed out, where President Trump started attending and talking both extensively and extemporaneously. How do you think those press conferences and the messages from Trump at that time impacted the responses from the Americans that you were surveying?
GADARIAN: Oh, they were extremely important. And so just to back up, to think about how do people in the mass public kind of understand, especially dramatic events, that they have no experience with. They look for leaders who are going to give them some sense of what the threat is and how to counter it and how to keep themselves safe.
And so normally, in a kind of disaster response or homeland security, the kinds of things that Olivia is talking about, we tend to see that experts will come together and will give kind of unified model of what the public will see. You know, if it’s terrorism, we know where the threat comes from and we have one message to counter it. But when people get different messages, they have to figure out who to turn to. And when one party and the president of the United States is telling his party, you don’t need to worry about the virus, it’s not going to make you sick. And even if it does, it’s pretty mild.
That is a very strong signal to people who trust him that they should align their views of the importance of the issue and then what to do with it. And that looks very different than what the Democratic Party and health leaders are saying at the time. And I actually think that … the health messaging coming from the White House itself is a problem.
Because it was telling people, visually speaking, that like Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci are on the same level and have the same level of expertise as the political leaders. And that you should weigh their expertise in the same way that you weigh your allegiance to a party. And I think this makes it very challenging for people to know who to listen to. And then we see behaviors and attitudes that come from their political identities rather than from relying on the expertise of people who have medical degrees.
CHAKRABARTI: But, Professor Gadarian, if I could just clarify something, you said when President Trump got up to the podium and was speaking during these press conferences, he was speaking to his party, but he was the president of the United States. You know, ostensibly he was speaking to all Americans. Is the difference here that members of his party were the ones listening and following what he was saying? I’m not clear.
GADARIAN: Yeah, sure. So I think we can think about, particularly because it’s an election year and thinking about the kind of polarization that we already have in this country. So Donald Trump was not particularly, didn’t have high approval ratings across the board, but he had high approval ratings from Republicans. And very low approval ratings from Democrats. So we have this big gap in who approves of the president. And so that lens of the election year and presidential approval means that Democrats are less likely to listen to what Trump is saying when there is an alternative message.
That’s coming from their own party and from what the doctors are saying and the Democrats and the doctors are pretty united. And then the president is saying something very different. And so those messages are going to get received differently by people in the public, even though Trump himself is president and has the ability to speak across party lines. It wasn’t received that way because those messages were so different than what we were hearing from the Democratic Party and from the kind of health establishment.
CHAKRABARTI: What I’m curious about is, I mean, the problem precedes the pandemic, right? I mean, could no matter what Donald Trump might have said in an alternative universe, what if he got up there and said, listen to Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, we are going to send out masks, we’re going to increase contact tracing, etc.
I mean, would that have made a difference? Or is that a case in which maybe Democrats wouldn’t have listened to Trump and wouldn’t have believed in the federal response?
GADARIAN: I think no. So I think we can imagine a counterfactual where there are Republican values of preserving life and of taking care of others, where we could have relied on messages from Republican leaders that said, listen, this is going to be short term, but we need to take care of each other. We are going to. And that Democratic leaders, if they had said the same thing, we could imagine a response that was very different and much less partisan than we had seen.
I mean, I think what you’re getting to is that, you know, what we point out in the book is there are a lot of structural conditions that made the pandemic response quite bad, one of which is political polarization, which precedes Donald Trump. But his messaging and the messaging around the pandemic from Republicans nationally was quite different than what we might have expected, a different Republican president or a Democratic president to have said at the same time.
CHAKRABARTI: And I think you’re getting at something really vitally important here. That in addition, first of all, there were millions and millions and millions of Americans who I would say no matter what Donald Trump said, they would not believe him. And secondly, nevertheless, we also never had a moment where there was sort of a unified bipartisan messaging. Coming from, you know, leaders standing together and saying, we’re in this together as Americans and here’s what we’re going to do. We never had that moment.
So, Olivia, let me go back to you briefly. I mean, when again, this is March, April, moving into May. Was there ever anyone on the task force or inside the White House, to the best of your knowledge, who ever told Trump at the time, like, please don’t say these things. It means people aren’t going to follow the best public health advice it could. It could hurt them. It’s hampering our response.
TROYE: Yes, absolutely. And look, as someone who looked at this from the homeland security aspect, I had watched many moments during the Trump administration where there should have been a stronger, more unified message delivered. And it never was. And in this situation, we should have been unified against this virus. That was one thing that was repeatedly stated along the way. And I think the challenging part was this was like a public health emergency, like our 9/11 for public health.
And after 9/11, the country was unified. It was a unifying moment where there was this enemy. We were standing up against it and we should have been doing it together. And I do think that Trump could have played a role in that. He could have delivered the messages. And he was told. And I’ll give a specific example. In such a divided country where there is a lot of hate being driven and divisiveness and racism, anti-Semitism, this has all been on the rise across our country. He was told not to refer to it as a China virus, that there would be hateful acts against Asian-Americans and Asians in general, that he needed to steer away from that kind of language.
… That was not appropriate, it was going to have repercussions, really, that he needed to focus on public health measures and getting the country through this. I personally had that conversation with Vice President Mike Pence, and I asked him, I pleaded and said, please don’t call it that. You know what the ramifications are of that.
Fortunately, I believe that he never did. But Trump went on to call it that. And it was … horrible terms like the kung flu. And I use this as an example because, again, why are we disparaging or making remarks like that? Instead, this is a very serious situation. And the situation will happen likely again, maybe not in our lifetime. Maybe in our lifetime. And I think it’s important that when you have the greatest pulpit, the biggest microphone. You have a responsibility to lead in that moment and lead for the entire country.
And I’ll say this. There was a lot of bullying happening across the board with the governors. And what you see play out is, in many situations, in Republican or red states, you can look at the number of deaths and there is a reason likely that they’re higher. And that is heartbreaking to me. Because I am from Texas. I saw my hometown of El Paso go through a very dark time when it came to COVID, and the governor was fighting with the leadership of that city. That should never be happening.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you see it any better or worse now?
TROYE: I think we’re worse. But we are more polarized. There’s conspiracies out there that have increased. There is anti-vax conspiracies that have sort of intertwined with this political divisiveness. And what I would say is the domestic radicalization of Americans, a lot of that is disinformation. A lot of that is the undermining of public institutions which really impacts our democracy. We should not be undermining doctors. We should not be undermining law enforcement. All of this is a combination of what’s happened here.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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