Viral Division: The Politicization of COVID-19 in America

By Skylar Yerdon

Often referred to as “The Year from Hell,” 2020 showcased a menagerie of deeply troubling events. There were wildfires causing deaths and displacements in California and Australia, heightened racial tensions and major protests as a result of the death of George Floyd, and giant murder hornets that seemed to have escaped from the pages of The Book of Exodus. However, no event was as universally and pervasively impactful as the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck America beginning in January 2020 (Salo 2020). 

By election day in 2020, despite the universal impact of COVID-19 and the subsequent regulations (i.e. mask mandates and lockdowns), perceptions of the pandemic differed wildly between Democrats and Republicans. According to a Civiqs poll, on Election Day, 44% of Republicans polled were not concerned at all about the outbreak of the coronavirus, while only 2% of Democrats were not concerned. Adversely, while a whopping 63% of polled Democrats were extremely concerned about the coronavirus outbreak, only a meager 6% of Republicans showed extreme concern (Civiqs 2020). What caused this particular division between party lines? How did such a universal problem as the COVID-19 pandemic become politicized?

In a 1980 publication titled “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming,” socio-legal scholars William Felstiner, Richard Abel, and Austin Sarat argued that the process of politicization is defined by the three actions of naming, blaming, and claiming (Abel et al. 1980). Naming corresponds with the emergence phase, which is when the issue first enters the political sphere due to it impacting politics in some way. Blaming corresponds with the confrontation phase, where forces of polarization intensify as one side blames the other for action or inaction in the face of the issue, leading to strong political divide. Finally, claiming corresponds with the managing phase which often involves one side of the debate claiming that they have a solution that can solve the problem (Bobba and Hubé 2021).  

Emergence Phase

We can match up events from the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic to each of the three aforementioned phases. First, we need to identify the polarization of COVID-19’s emergence phase, starting at the beginning of the pandemic in America. The first documented case was in Washington state on January 20th. Less than ten days later, the White House established the Coronavirus Task Force (CDC Museum 2022). At this point in time, the coronavirus outbreak was treated simply as a matter of public health. It was treated with a high level of severity and concern, evident by subsequent emergency authorizations implemented to attempt to contain the outbreak. The first instance of COVID-19 being politicized is in the aftermath of a January 30th tweet from Republican senator Tom Cotton. The tweet implied that coronavirus may have been engineered in a lab in Wuhan, China. The official story until that point had been that the disease had most likely originated from unhygienic wet markets in Wuhan. Senator Cotton was the first prominent US politician to claim that the Chinese government intentionally engineered the disease as an intended bioweapon (Huang 2020). This is the beginning of the emergence phase, as it marks the point at which the pandemic became intertwined with political affairs. The prospect of a manufactured origin by another major world superpower—true or not—resulted in the matter becoming a topic of political discussion. 

Confrontation Phase

In the aftermath of Senator Cotton’s tweet, alternative allegations accusing the United States of manufacturing and weaponizing the virus spread across Chinese social media. The allegations swiftly gained immense popularity among the Chinese population, but no one in the Chinese state government parroted the claims. On March 13th, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson posted a tweet promoting the allegations against the US. Previously, the Trump administration had been linking the virus to China; however, the March 13th tweet resulted in a much stronger campaign by the president. He began to refer to the disease only as the “Chinese virus” and called for the international community to hold China accountable (Huang 2020).

This still does not explain the partisan division that characterizes the confrontation phase, as the prospects of a hostile Chinese government would usually serve as a unifying force. Rather, the confrontation phase is the 2020 Presidential Election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The presidential race showcased the major disparity between candidates in their proposed methods of handling the pandemic. President Trump, who often emphasizes the importance of the functioning of the American economy, argued that lockdowns for the virus needed to end as quickly as possible to help Americans get back to work. In opposition, former Vice President Biden directly blamed the Trump administration for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans (BBC News 2020). By using the coronavirus as a political tool in the presidential race, both candidates intensified the forces of polarization on the issue. Had the pandemic occurred in a non-election year, it may have served as a unifying force for Americans. Since it did coincide with the election, Americans expected their beliefs about the pandemic to be reflected by their candidates. Acts that should only be indications of philosophies about public health (e.g. social distancing, masking, and vaccinating) instead became directly conflated with political ideologies (Singal 2020). For example, take mask-wearing during the height of the pandemic. Prior to widespread vaccination, a person in public not wearing a mask might be conflated as a right-wing anti-masker. After vaccines had been distributed and mask mandates were lifted for vaccinated individuals, a person in public wearing a mask might be conflated as a right-wing anti-vaxxer. Oppositely, to those with polarized right-wing ideologies, a person wearing a mask in public may be seen as left-wing. In all of these cases, the fact that someone may believe that it is possible to discern evidence of political views from acts related only to reducing the spread of a virus demonstrates best how politicized the pandemic became.

Managing Phase

The managing phase of COVID-19’s politicization is the easiest to identify. After being elected, the Biden administration claimed to be able to solve the issue of how best to handle the pandemic. With their National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, they mobilized thousands of vaccination locations and testing locations throughout the country. Perhaps ironically, they also made it a key point to try to prevent shutdowns as much as possible (The White House 2022). The Democrats held the majority of power in government, so they proceeded to manage the issue, maintaining their professed position as the party that could properly handle the pandemic. 

The process of politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic that began with debates over a manufactured origin of the virus and later split among party lines due to the presidential election was complete. An issue that could have in other years had the potential to be a unifying force across the political spectrum was polarized and this topic of concern for national health instead became a political weapon and a facet of the political ideologies of the members of the two major political parties.

Skylar Yerdon is a sophomore-year economics major from Syracuse, NY. He plans to continue his education into graduate school. At Binghamton, Skylar is a member of the Scholars Program and WHRW, the university radio station. He loves long walks on the beach at sunset, the original version of Willy Wonka, and his dog.


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