Commentary

The novel coronavirus has no politics, but people threatened by it obviously do | Jarvis DeBerry

April 2, 2021 7:55 am
Governor John Bel Edwards

Gov. John Bel Edwards at the Louisiana State Capitol in July of 2020.

It is accepted as a truism in the public health world that health information should be communicated to the public by someone other than elected officials — lest that information be rejected by everybody who doesn’t care for those officials or their party.

However, people elect mayors, governors and presidents whom they expect to be out front and in charge during crises. And what bigger crisis is there than an airborne virus that sweeps the globe and leaves 2.82 million people (and counting) dead?

Many elected officials, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, have attempted to solve the dilemma  by occasionally stepping away from the microphone and letting public health officials provide the data and letting physicians paint a scene of what’s happening in hospitals.

But anybody who’s watched Edwards’ press conferences live on Facebook and glanced down at the comments has gotten a real time look at what happens when hard facts meet the buzzsaw of politics. Even though Edwards lifted capacity restrictions in bars and restaurants during Tuesday’s press conference, 587 Facebook users expressed their feelings with an angry-face icon — presumably because Edwards didn’t support us taking off face masks or hugging everybody we see.

Commenters accused him of lying about the effectiveness of masks, the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines and about the dangers of the virus — even after more than 10,000 Louisianians have died.

“This was not simply seen as a public health issue,” LSU professor Mike Henderson said of the pandemic Thursday. “It was framed very much in political terms, early on, and people have viewed it that way almost the whole time.”

Henderson, director of the Public Policy Research Lab, conducted a survey published Thursday by LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs which found that almost two-thirds of Democrats approve of the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and almost half of Republicans disapprove. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats reported that they’d already been vaccinated or planned to be compared to 49 percent of Republicans.

Thirteen percent of Democrats expressed opposition to vaccination, but a whopping  43 percent of Republicans did.

Former President Donald Trump deserves to be criticized for the countless ways he talked about the virus in starkly partisan terms, but if the novel coronavirus outbreak had happened during former President Barack Obama’s eight years or during a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration, it wouldn’t have been any less politicized — even if they had worked to keep it from happening.

Henderson agreed. “I think there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical about the possibility that (the pandemic) could have ever been not politicized,” he said. He’s familiar with the literature that says politicians should cede the microphone to public health experts. “That might mitigate this, he said, “but I’m not sure that’s all that easy either.” At least not now.  

Trust in institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plummeted as Trump spent most of his last year in office attacking the agency and reports emerged that some top officials were yielding to political pressure. Henderson said he and Martin Johnson, the dean of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication who died in September, found that in the early days of the pandemic, about 90 percent of Louisiana Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans trusted information from the CDC. In January, trust for the agency was a little north of 50 percent for Republicans and a little south of 80 percent for Democrats.  

 “And we find a similar kind of situation for (the Louisiana Department of Health),” Henderson said.

Was it Republicans’ baseless allegations that LDH was exaggerating Louisiana’s COVID-19?

“I suspect that’s not all of it,” Henderson said. Many Republicans continue to downplay the pandemic like Trump did. So “anyone saying that it’s a big deal then becomes suspect.”

What can politicians dispensing public health information do to persuade people of the opposite party? “It’s hard to be persuadable to people in the opposite party,” Henderson said. A good strategy, he said, is tapping people of the opposite party to persuade their own.

“If we’re in a situation where, say, conservative Republicans are the ones that are least buying into the public health information, then what you need is a couple of conservative Republican, prominent public officials, to say, ‘ Hey, this is a big effing deal, guys.’”

For a fleeting moment, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was that  Republican,, saying in a March 2020 press conference: We are united in this goal. The governor and I are standing here shoulder to shoulder.”

Where might Louisiana’s numbers be if Landry had stayed at the governor’s side and demonstrated that it’s OK to be a Republican who makes protecting oneself and others from infection a top priority? 

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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