Politics is pervasive. I, like most people my age, have been acutely aware of politics (even if only vaguely) since childhood. I remember Obama’s election; I remember the debates about gay marriage; I remember seeing bulls and bears on the cover of Barron’s magazine. All of these things existed before I had any real understanding of what they meant, what they signified. Growing up in an era marked by terrorism, economic unrest and landmark civil rights breakthroughs made me think, though. I did not know it, but it made politics part of my everyday life, whether I understood the issue or not. The past few years have put those early days to shame – the world has dealt with crisis after crisis, problem after problem, and as such politics, especially polarized politics, have become everything. This is already a problem in more normal times, when we sat in our bubbles and fought over issues that mean very little to the world; but in the age of COVID-19, it is a tragedy.
It is clear that the response to the current coronavirus pandemic, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, has been marred by failure at every turn. Take whatever metric you want – total cases, total deaths, cases per million, deaths per million – the US and the UK have done significantly worse than most of their peer nations (this is especially true for the US). A common thread between the two is the politicization of all aspects of this crisis. Every single issue of this pandemic, from things like masks, to vaccines, to lockdowns, is a political talking point for one side or the other. The mask issue has engulfed America since the pandemic began, with some Republicans going as far to say that masks are damaging to personal liberty. Polls show that many US citizens will not take a vaccine once it is released. Lockdown has been a hotly debated topic in left- and right-wing circles, as Olivia Groom’s well put article on the matter makes evident. This is functionally disastrous – it has hindered our ability to make strong, decisive decisions, which is necessary to stop the spread. This is not to say that either the left or the right is correct on this issue – even now, my beliefs change consistently on how long lockdown should have happened for, what its purpose was, etc. Instead, I argue that we needed to take some decision, and we did not do so.
Let me illustrate this with an example: masks in America. As previously mentioned, masks are a contentious issue in US politics. An interesting debate at the beginning of the global pandemic was whether masks worked, and if we needed to save them for healthcare workers. This debate was healthy – it was not particularly partisan and dealt with important issues of scarcity and prevention that any country must take a stance on. Unfortunately, this quickly devolved into political fights. Rather than focusing on whether masks are a net good (do they stop the spread? Do they cause any health problems?), the question of masks became a mark of your political orientation. Donald Trump rejected them, and, soon, so did his supporters – to them, if you wore a mask, you were a sheep and wanted to take away liberties. Both of these claims are obviously bunk. There has been rigorous academic debate over whether or not masks work, and they have provided a fairly definitive yes. On the other hand, masks do not limit liberty in any notable way, and it is more likely not wearing one violates others’ right to life. But these points became irrelevant – masks merely became another way for the polarized sides of politics to rear their ugly heads. And, more importantly, it stopped effective action on the issue. Once it became clear masks worked, Congress or Trump should have instituted a national mask mandate. This has still not come to be, which has allowed for a fractured policy where some states force masks to be worn everywhere and others do not require them at all. No developed nation should be facing that problem.
To be clear, I am not advocating for group-think. Discussions and debates are fundamentally important for finding the truth of a matter, or getting close to it. That is why I love free speech, and one of the reasons philosophers like J.S. Mill argue for it. But this politicization is not “free speech.” It is group-think, except there are two bubbles, neither able to challenge their own views and forced by politics to take the stances they do. That is the tragedy of our coronavirus politics. Instead of debate, we have entrenched screaming matches. Instead of trying to find the truth, trying to figure out how to deal with this pandemic in the best way possible, different positions on issues are used as proxies to fight the other side politically. And through this, we have gotten a pathetic patchwork of policies from the government, both in the US and the UK. We do not have a plan, we have chaos, we have political fighting. If it continues, the reaction by both nations will go down as some of the biggest failures of governance in decades (with the US the worse example).
I believe more debate is necessary, but this debate needs to be productive. The Liberty Club, in my view, is doing the right thing by encouraging good-faith discussion on coronavirus restrictions. Not everyone will agree with everything, but that’s the point – there should be arguments about what the best course of action is, followed by weighing utility and choosing the best possible option. The governments of the US and UK have not taken this approach, and issues like masks have been used as political pawns rather than as impactful potential solutions to the world’s biggest crisis in decades. Politics is everywhere – it really does control us – but this once, it would be nice to have a plan detached from it.
The views in this piece are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club
COVID-19 CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC – Worldometer
“Two-thirds of Americans say they won’t get COVID-19 vaccine when it’s first available, USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll shows” – USA Today News
“WHO warns of global shortage of face masks and protective suits” – The Guardian
“Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus” – UCSF News