In January 2009, Joe Biden’s swearing in as vice president came amid the worst financial crisis the United States had experienced since the Great Depression. That fledgling year of the Obama administration was largely consumed by the ensuing policy demands of the “Great Recession.” But daunting as they were, the challenges of 2009 may pale in comparison to those that will shape the first year of Biden’s own presidency.
Not only are the newly inaugurated president and his administration plunging headlong into a global pandemic, but they are doing so against a backdrop of socio-political upheaval perhaps unseen in the United States since Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. The degree to which they succeed in confronting these challenges may hinge in large part on how effectively Biden and his team can depoliticize the public conversation around COVID-19.
Results from a recent survey conducted at the University of South Florida highlight the extent to which political influences — at the expense of public health considerations — have shaped public understanding of and reactions to the pandemic. The survey, which was sponsored by the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, was fielded between Jan. 9 and 12, and it included opinions and behaviors from a representative sample of 1,003 American adults.
Among the survey respondents, roughly two-thirds (67 percent) either “somewhat” or “strongly agreed” that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “too politicized”, particularly in the context of social media. More concerning, though, was the fact that over three quarters of respondents (76 percent) agreed that “Politics has made it harder to learn the truth about COVID-19.”
For many Americans, the politicization of COVID-19 has not merely been an abstract phenomenon playing out in cyberspace. Nearly a third of respondents (30 percent) noted that disagreements over COVID-19 have caused tension in their personal relationships with family and friends. Among active Facebook users, nearly one in four respondents (23 percent) reported “unfriending” someone over political comments made about COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, polling data released over the past year have consistently shown that party affiliation plays a critical role in shaping people’s attitudes toward public health measures and mitigation policies. This latest round of data suggests that these political influences are also now shaping attitudes and intentions regarding COVID-19 vaccines.
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For example, among the survey respondents, half of Democrats (50 percent) indicated that they will “definitely” get vaccinated. In contrast, only 34 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of independents said the same. Meanwhile, 17 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of independents indicated that they will “definitely not get vaccinated,” compared with only 8 percent of Democrats.
The results also showed that Republicans and independents are more likely to lack confidence in the efficacy and safety of the recently approved vaccines, while Republicans are also slightly more likely to be concerned about the potential side-effects.
Collectively, the data paint a picture of just how deeply politicized this public health crisis has become, and they highlight the fact that many Americans are taking cues on COVID-19 from political sources rather than medical professionals and public health experts. Indeed, only 21 percent of respondents reported having had a conversation with their doctor about whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine is right for them.
When asked which sources they have relied on to learn about the vaccine, the three most commonly cited mediums were television news (57 percent), friends, family and coworkers (40 percent), and social media (32 percent). Less than a third of respondents reported using official government sources, such as the CDC or NIH (30 percent) or even medical webpages, such as Mayo Clinic or WebMD (25 percent).
While the new administration faces significant challenges related to the logistics of vaccine distribution and economic policy responses, depoliticizing the COVID-19 information environment will be one of the most important steps toward ending the pandemic, and unfortunately, it will be easier said than done. Moving public health experts back to the forefront of our national dialog will be an important first step toward reframing COVID-19 as a public health crisis rather than a political one.
Stephen Neely (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. Former associate director of National Intelligence, Ron Sanders is currently the staff director of the Florida Center for Cybersecurity.
Note: The USF and Florida Center for Cybersecurity study was conducted as an online survey using Prodege MR, a leading market research provider. The sample of 1,003 Americans was fielded to be representative of the nation’s demographic composition based on census region, age, gender, race, ethnicity, and education. The results are reported with a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error +/- 3.1.