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State of the COVID-19 union: Honing our selective memories

Polarizing Trump drove view of all things pandemic through a political lens

A sign outside the Capitol on Jan. 10, 2022, reminding people to wear a face mask because of COVID-19.
A sign outside the Capitol on Jan. 10, 2022, reminding people to wear a face mask because of COVID-19. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Three years after the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 people in America alone, the level of national amnesia was stunning.

In news clips from the early fall of 1921, three years after the worst days of the contagion, there were about as many references to the Punic Wars as to influenza.

About the only exception were newspaper ads and promos peddling patent medicines. A typical paid headline in a Dayton, Ohio, paper blared, “REPORTS SHOW FLU IS STILL TAKING BIG TOLL; N. DAYTON WOMAN FINDS WAY TO RELIEF.” Her miracle cure: “Pepgen is sold by all first-class druggists everywhere.”

Three years after COVID-19 first raged through America in early March 2020, we are honing our selective memories instead of practicing amnesia. Almost everything we choose to recall from that wrenching period is viewed through the lens of partisan politics.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library over the weekend, a central tenet in his over-the-top case for the political superiority of the Sunshine State was his laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. Veering close to vaccine denial, he declared: “Nobody in the state of Florida was going to be pushed to have to choose between the job they needed and the shots they didn’t want to take.”

On Wednesday, a House subcommittee hearing, chaired by Ohio’s Brad Wenstrup, will hold a hearing to peddle the viewpoint that COVID-19 originated from a Chinese lab leak, rather than natural causes.

This view has been endorsed by the Department of Energy — albeit with “low confidence” — and FBI Director Christopher Wray. But the combination of obsessive Chinese secrecy and the complexities of the virus make it difficult at this stage — or perhaps ever — to reach any degree of certainty.

What is conveniently being forgotten, particularly by Republicans, are the horrifying deaths and the frightening level of ignorance that accompanied the early no-room-at-the-morgue days of the pandemic.

Panicky decisions were made based on incomplete or even wrong-headed information. An initial failure to understand how COVID-19 was spread led to obsessive cleaning of groceries, compulsive hand-washing to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” misinformation on masks and the irrational closing of playgrounds and beaches — though not in Florida.

COVID-19 vaccines, which remain one of the major medical miracles of my lifetime, were initially portrayed as offering full immunity against the virus. When new variants emerged — and vaccines turned out to offer only major protection against serious outcomes — there was a sense of betrayal that total safety was not currently medically possible.

The problem is that we live in an era when well-intentioned governmental mistakes become weaponized. Compounding the problem is that the pandemic hit with Donald Trump, the most polarizing president since the Civil War, in the White House.

The result has been that everything about the pandemic is viewed in ideological terms. Wearing a mask, purchasing a home test kit and getting a booster shot have all become regarded as political choices rather than individualized health decisions.

The Biden administration, for all its professed commitment to follow the science, should not get a free pass. Once Congress balked at providing more COVID-19 funding, the White House quietly bowed to the political winds.

As a result, government-supplied COVID-19 tests are a thing of the past. Reliable numbers on the rate of COVID-19 transmission are as elusive as the Chinese spy balloon fleet. And movement toward better COVID-19 vaccines appears to be proceeding at the pace of research on a cure for hangnails.

Equally seriously, the government has done little to communicate how we should each think about COVID-19. Never has there been clear guidance from Washington on how to assess your own risk from the virus. Never has there been a national ad campaign about COVID-19 to rival the crusade against cigarettes.

With case levels now seemingly sharply down in the Northeast and dropping elsewhere, are we finally back to something resembling normal? Or is this just a welcome hiatus before the next onslaught? And if the experts do not know, they should make the rationale for their uncertainty clear.

By politicizing the worst pandemic in a century, we have lost the ability to look clearly at what America as a society has lost because of COVID-19.

It may take years to tease out the educational deficits from the disruptions to normal schooling. Will the cost to children be in terms of reading levels, socialization or just a general sense of fear? Or have children proved more resilient than expected?

While COVID-19 barely registers as an urgent national problem — a mid-February Quinnipiac University Poll ranked it at the bottom of 12 pressing issues — the sour aftereffects from the pandemic may be coloring how we regard the economy and the direction of the country.

Given the experience with COVID-19, it is sobering to contemplate how America will react to the next wrenching crisis. Rather than preparing for the next pandemic, rather than absorbing the lessons from COVID-19, the dominant emphasis has been on the next campaign, the next TV attack ad.

No country got COVID-19 completely right. China certainly did not achieve zero-COVID-19 with its draconian societal shutdowns. And, over time, Europe did not notably score better than America with its much stricter initial shutdowns.

But, absurdly enough, many Republicans treat the COVID-19 years as if there were no difference between the American way and the Chinese approach. Any restriction in the U.S. is equated with lockdowns enforced by armed soldiers.

A little more than two decades ago, the nation came together — albeit briefly — in a patriotic outburst of unity after the Sept. 11 attacks.

This time around, following a pandemic that left more than 1.1 million Americans dead, we have grown further apart with angry recriminations and a refusal to accept mistakes based on faulty information.

That reaction is almost as scary as the virus.

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