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Dwindling Public Concern About COVID Is Handing Republicans a Gift

Despite both parties’ COVID failures, a slew of Republican wins would entirely extinguish hopes for preparedness.

Hospital staff walk by a mural at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, on January 18, 2022.

Of all the things I expected to say at this point in 2022, “it’s great to be a Republican right now” was nowhere among them. If you had told me a year ago that the post-Trump GOP would be anything other than a shattered shambles today, I would have belly-laughed like Jabba the Hutt and then questioned your fitness as a political observer… yet here we are, so who’s the smart guy? Not me.

Despite all that has taken place — Donald Trump’s crashing mismanagement of COVID, the economic and social upheaval caused by the pandemic, the loss of one million lives, the sacking of the Capitol Building by a mob of Trump voters wielding Confederate flags, and the disgraceful deportment of that former president as he licks his wounds beneath an indifferent Florida sky — the Republican Party is somehow presently occupying all manner of political catbird seats. If the pattern holds, it may come to be the best trick anyone has seen since “Lazarus, come forth.”

At present, President Biden’s approval rating hovers down in the depths where only Trump and George W. Bush have visited. This, despite the lowest jobless numbers since time out of mind, a shallowing of COVID infection rates across the board, as well as the president’s not-as-bad-as-it-could-be handling of an impossible situation in Ukraine.

Also, and not for nothing, it’s quieter now. That sense of waking up every day trapped inside someone else’s screaming headache has been dispersed with such vigor that pundits are able to spend time snarking about Biden’s “gaffes” after four years of televised Trumpy mayhem. I am no pollster, but you would think that new calm should be worth a 10 point bump all by itself, right? Nope.

2021 and 2022 were both caused, in no small measure, by the daily calamity of Trump in 2020, yet he currently squats on a campaign war chest bursting with over $110 million. This is more than any other PAC, super PAC or the party-affiliated committees. Trump’s hoard towers over the sums collected by would-be challengers to the throne.

Aside from fees paid to lawyers representing defendants in the Capitol attack investigation, “Trump has done little to spend his largesse around the party,” according to Politico. This strongly suggests Trump wants that money for himself if/when he makes another run for the White House in 2024.

A series of election-night debacles stripped the shine from the polling industry’s veneer over the last several cycles, leaving it a feeble stick to lean on. For whatever they are worth, virtually all of them are howling Democratic doom in the upcoming midterms. At present, the GOP stands to regain control of both the House and Senate, setting up a downhill run to 2024 and quite possibly the return of Donald Trump to the White House. Incredible? Yes. Impossible? No such thing anymore.

For me, it all comes back to COVID and Trump’s generally ruinous, self-serving handling of the crisis. How can his party be in such a strong position with so many grievous wounds still open and bleeding? The answer may be found in another pair of public surveys, as CNN reports:

A recent Gallup poll gives us good insight. Just 3 percent of Americans said the coronavirus or diseases are the top problem facing the country. That’s less than half the previous low for this answer (8 percent), which occurred in mid-2021 when case rates were also falling. Two years ago (April 2020), a record 45 percent said the coronavirus was the top problem in the country. It’s not surprising that we’re nowhere near that level anymore. Still, I had to take a step back when I saw that 3 percent.

The Gallup poll isn’t the only one to show that the significance of the pandemic in the minds of Americans has fallen dramatically. A recent NBC News poll also found that just 3 percent said the coronavirus was the most important issue facing the country. The public is not alone in caring less about the pandemic than ever before. Cable news had fewer mentions of “covid” in March (less than 2,700) than in any month since the beginning of the pandemic. At its peak, there were over 17,000 monthly mentions of “covid” on cable news.

(Emphasis added)

Wow, y’all. That was fast… fast, and, I suppose, entirely predictable. After two long years, it is easy enough to figure that the COVID grind has people desperate to care about something, anything else. “What’s that, you say? Food and fuel prices are over the moon, and it’s World War III in Europe? Huzzah, something else to think about, finally!”

Gallows humor aside, there is a reason why “it’s the economy, stupid” is considered political holy writ by both parties. Given the chance to vote their wallet or some larger concept, a majority of voters will infallibly vote “wallet.”

Therein, however, lies the Gordian knot of the matter. None of the country’s current bread-and-butter concerns about rising inflation and wobbly international supply chains will be properly addressed until COVID-19 is dealt with both here and around the world. You’ll have to see Mr. Putin about the gas prices, but even those were heaving upward before the Ukraine invasion, thanks to the aforementioned supply line problems.

…and no matter what the lowering numbers of the moment may preach, COVID is not finished with us. “On March 22 the World Health Organization announced that the Omicron subvariant BA.2 had become the dominant form of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, worldwide,” reports Scientific American. “BA.2 shares many genetic similarities with its close relative BA.1, which fueled a global resurgence in COVID infections in recent months. But BA.2 is between 30 percent and 50 percent more contagious than BA.1.”

In other words: Here it comes again, just like all the others did, and we remain woefully unprepared again. The state of our preparedness could actually be described as an incredible act of self-sabotage. Congress recently stripped $15 billion in COVID prep funds from the latest spending package. At this moment, the absence of those funds is requiring states to either restrict or shut down their COVID defenses just as B.A.2 is really beginning to stretch its legs.

I don’t know how you fix such irresponsible systemic indifference, especially when the political climate of the moment (3 percent?!) confers no urgency to address it. Like as not, and if history is any guide, B.A.2 or something like it will carve a swath through the country, and we will all find ourselves in a drearily familiar place: right back where we started. If Republicans continue to gain momentum, we can bet that our inexcusably sorry level of pandemic preparedness will plunge us even further into the depths of abandonment.

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