- COVID-19 has infected 31 million people and killed 970,000 people worldwide, including the US, partly because of divisions over how serious the health consequences of the virus are and how quickly governments responded and addressed the risks of the pandemic.
- Experts tell Business Insider that people are denying or minimizing the risk of COVID-19 mostly because the virus itself has been politicized.
- In the US, 7 million people have gotten COVID-19 and at least 200,000 have died.
- Yet many people in the US refuse to wear face masks, and some believe the pandemic has been overblown.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The spread of the coronavirus in the US can be attributed to many factors — including those who have denied or underestimated the threat of the virus and how fast it could spread.
Experts have said that while there are a number of reasons people haven’t taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
“The fundamental problem is that the issue is politicized,” Adrian Bardon, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University, told Business Insider.
About 7 million people in the US have been infected with COVID-19 and at least 200,000 have died, but many people still deny or minimize the threat of what’s become the deadliest pandemic in modern history.
The first known case of the virus in the US was recorded on January 21. In mid-March, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. By the beginning of April, nearly all the US population was under some sort of lockdown as the virus spread. It hit metropolitan areas such as New York especially hard.
It only took 99 days after the first US case was reported for the country to surpass 1 million cases. And 43 days after that, it surpassed 2 million. The 3-million-case mark came just 28 days after that, in early July. By the end of July, it would surpass 4 million.
The Trump administration initially downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, even as cases and deaths surged.
“We have it totally under control,” the president said on January 22. “It’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
In February, as top officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that cases in the US were likely to snowball, Trump said cases would be “close to zero” in a “couple of days.”
As the virus spread, Trump suggested that people inject disinfectant as a cure, undermined medical experts on his own coronavirus task force, and described Democrats’ criticism of his administration’s handling of the pandemic as a “hoax.”
Many of Trump’s supporters have cosigned the president’s downplaying of the virus and the pandemic at large.
These efforts led to protests against shutdowns, mask orders, and other efforts to quell the spread of the virus. In Michigan, for example, protesters brought rifles to the state capitol because they deemed the measures were overexaggerated, or that the state government was overstepping on its rights, or because they thought the entire pandemic was a hoax.
Public-health officials across the country who pushed for these measures received death threats.
People have refused to wear masks in public and in multiple incidents turned belligerent or violent when asked to do so. Violent anti-mask behavior led the Centers for Disease Control to issue guidance to retail workers including installing security equipment, such as panic buttons, and identifying a safe room where workers can avoid violent customers.
Diverging realities in a divided nation
Ideological polarization in the US right now means that many Americans are siloed within their own factions, leading preexisting beliefs to be reinforced by like-minded people without being challenged.
Joseph Eisenberg, an epidemiologist from the University of Michigan, said another factor at play is that people in the US, more than any other nation, have a penchant for a “freedom” and free choice to make decisions they feel affect them.
Those on the conservative end of the political spectrum, Bardon said, tend to believe that the government has little to no role in making rules that should be personal decisions, such as wearing a mask, and to go their own way when they believe it suits them.
“The culture in the US is more about independence and not being told what to do,” Eisenberg told Business Insider. “There’s a larger sector of our population that on principle doesn’t think we should be forced to wear a mask, and they might want to show themselves as an example of that.”
Bardon, of Wake Forest, said that when a particular fact threatens one’s preexisting perception it could also prompt someone to reject empirical evidence or expert guidance.
People in positions of power can fight these issues by distributing accurate information and setting an example for the nation. But instead, Trump has spurred suspicion of government and denial of the severity of the consequences of the virus, according to Avishek Adhikari, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“When Trump calls this virus a hoax, says it’s exaggerated or claims falsely that it is a ploy by the Democrats, you know we’ve reached the point where the issue has been politicized,” Bardon said. “We have politicized science.”
He added if it weren’t for that politicization, it would likely have been easier for people to take the virus more seriously. The way this coronavirus manifests in infected plays a role in public perception as well.
“You don’t have people literally dropping dead in the street with black boils all over their faces,” Bardon said. “There would be no reason for people to doubt that the disease existed if that were the case.”
Both Bardon and Adhikari said virus deniers might be influenced partly by what an invisible illness COVID-19 can be.
“People react very differently to concrete, dangers that they can sense by either hearing or seeing compared to something invisible,” Adhikari said, adding: “Then you factor in that it may not cause symptoms in a large percentage of the population, and then there’s the probability of getting it. So that’s very different from the reaction most people would have if, say, there is a bear charging at you. Then everyone would have a similar kind of reaction.”
Bardon said that when people are confronted with information that challenges their perceptions, especially in the US’s divided culture, it engenders a cognitive dissonance they must resolve.
Denial is often the default reaction, to a point.
“Presumably, when you’re actually in the ICU on a ventilator … there’s a point where the cognitive dissonance becomes overwhelming and it just can’t be denied. It can’t be compartmentalized … or magical thinking just doesn’t work anymore,” Bardon said.
“It’s just really striking how much it takes to get some people to give up on their belief system.”
As the pandemic drags on, risk assessment among the population evolves alongside it.
“The less novel something is, the more people are willing to take added risks,” Eisenberg said.
That may lead some people to gradually become desensitized to the coronavirus.
“People forget fairly quickly, and as this goes on I think that everybody will adjust what they’re comfortable with,” Eisenberg added. “If we see mortality go down, and the chances of you knowing anybody that had a severe case starts going way down, that will result in people taking more risks.”