U.S.

The Coming Bout of COVID Polarization

A nurse administers a shot of influenza vaccine at the New York Downtown Hospital in New York City in 2013. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
An early flu season — something that begins spreading in late September or October in a state such as Minnesota or Wisconsin — could bring us to a boiling point.

Donald Trump sometimes calls the coronavirus “the invisible enemy.” Occasionally he comes up with an evocative phrase. And for me it evokes the way the disease harms the society that contends with it. By adopting quarantines, the cities empty, and the protective presence of citizens is withdrawn from shopping and nightlife districts, thus inviting much of the chaos and looting we saw this summer.

Every kind of social event is harmed by the fear of COVID. Funerals are limited. As many young couples found out, weddings are canceled, masked, delayed, or turn out to be smaller celebrations than they would otherwise be. The out-of-the-ordinary hygienic measures, social distancing, and the news itself stoke a certain kind of vulnerability and paranoia, one that easily shifts into other areas of life. Instead of blotting out America’s culture-war politics, the pandemic has intensified them.

And it may not be through with us yet.

We fight and the parties retreat into their encampments, even about COVID itself. Lockdown protesters were on the right. Social-distance shaming comes from the left. Donald Trump wants schools to be open. Joe Biden wants a national mask mandate, and says we haven’t yet adequately contended with the disease.

The chattering classes and their audiences are internalizing that the more trouble COVID causes, the better for Joe Biden. And the more that COVID enters the rearview mirror, the better for Donald Trump.

All this would be cause enough for concern. But it could get much worse. An early flu season — something that begins spreading in late September or October in a state such as Minnesota or Wisconsin — could bring us to a boiling point.

First there is the problem of the unknown. We don’t know a lot about how the flu and COVID-19 interact and exacerbate one another. It’s possible that the ongoing level of social distancing will hamper the spread of the annual flu. But more immediately, the problem will be that unless COVID is fading away for good as I write, many people developing respiratory illness due to the flu will have a reason to suspect they may have COVID.

Instead of the number of tests falling, they will rise again, maybe even sharply. A bad flu outbreak could trigger testing on a level that would almost automatically create school closures and other business shutdowns.

And even positivity rates may not hold up as the metric by which schools and other institutions are closed and reopened. With sufficient panic, we may return to the standards in the early spring, when in New York schools closed the moment a single student or teacher tested positive for the virus. All the work at half-time schedules, segregated “pods” of students in schools, and social distancing can be written off if politically motivated reasoning alone can heighten the panic.

Conservatives will be motivated to counter this mood just as fiercely. They will argue that positivity-rate metrics for COVID restrictions are often uncomfortably close to the false-positivity rate of some major available COVID tests. They will argue that the institutions in charge of deciding the fate of children and the larger social order are often run by people who are themselves politically biased toward closing, at least until November. They will be called truthers, and deniers, and participants in human sacrifice.

We may even see conservatives blaming the emergent mass-protest movement leading up to the election and led by activist groups such as AdBusters. Radical encampments have often been the vector of disease and criminality in the past, going back to the Paris Commune.

Instead of adjudicating the spring reaction of Donald Trump to COVID, we may soon be entering a period when the day-to-day numbers of the disease seem to hold not just the fate of our household arrangements for the next few months, but also the threat of lockdowns, and an adverse election result.

If that’s not enough to make you feel a chill, I don’t know what is.

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