Two reports from the COVID-19 front lines in recent days starkly illustrate America’s partisan divide on an issue that shouldn’t be political. On Sunday, the Boston-area town of Brookline, Mass., the quintessential liberal enclave of "Blue America," extended its rule requiring masks to be worn outdoors, even though it’s no longer required by state policy. On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has become a hero to "Red America" by resisting pandemic-related restrictions, issued an executive order that not only suspends local governments’ mask mandates but prohibits vaccination passports — requirements by government agencies or private businesses that individuals present proof of vaccination to receive services.
Meanwhile, with vaccinations slowing down even as vaccines finally become universally available, there are concerns that we may never reach herd immunity. If the virus continues to circulate, multiply and mutate, even the vaccinated will soon become vulnerable to infection as their immunity wears off, and we may be back at square one. There is little doubt that vaccination progress is being hampered by skepticism on the right.
Any division into heroes and villains along partisan lines is bound to be too simplistic. In the case of COVID-19, we now know that some blue-state leaders once effusively praised for their response turned out to be far less than heroic. Just look at the controversy over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s counting of nursing-home deaths. Even many liberal commentators acknowledge that the Trump administration deserves more credit than it commonly gets for the rapid development of the vaccine, despite its disastrous performance in the pandemic’s early months. Florida, much to the consternation of DeSantis' critics, has fared about as well in infection and death rates as blue states with more restrictive policies.
Partly, this perplexing picture is due to the fact that the COVID problem is so complicated. Shifting expert advice on things like masking and outdoor transmission is often taken in "Red America" as evidence that "elite" experts don’t know any more than ordinary people. But scientists and public health specialists have been trying to figure out a new, terrifying, rapidly spreading disease about which much remains unclear. The experts would have to be superhuman to make no mistakes.
Progressive COVID hard-liners are certainly not beyond criticism. School closures in many blue states may have been excessive, with particularly deleterious effects for disadvantaged children whose remote learning opportunities may be limited. Declarations that masking (or even double masking!) and social distancing must continue even post-vaccination can smack of "virtue signaling" (i.e., demonstrations of moral superiority) and inadvertently undercut the pro-vaccination message that getting vaccinated means a return to normal life.
But none of that compares to the damage of COVID denialism on the right, where pundits and politicians — starting with the former president — have pushed the insidious notion that the pandemic’s dangers are overblown and that it should be up to each individual to decide what precautions to take. (That doesn't work for epidemics.) Today, leading conservative pundits such as Tucker Carlson are not only bashing mask-wearers but stoking fears about the supposed dangers of the vaccine and suggesting that for young people, vaccination may be more dangerous than COVID-19.
Should liberals curb the COVID virtue signaling? Sure, if only because it helps fuel the COVID culture war. But there is no moral equivalency here. Irresponsible rhetoric on the right is sabotaging our ability to defeat this disease.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.