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Pandemic politics pits Trump against public health officials – Al Jazeera English

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Public health experts in the United States say President Donald Trump is downplaying science in his drive to reopen the US economy and risking lives by pushing governors to ease restrictions on public life.

“There is no question of what’s happening here, which is that the country is reopening too soon,” said Dr Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University.

“There will be predictable consequences which are avoidable infections and preventable deaths,” Wen told Al Jazeera.

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Governors in all 50 US states have begun to ease stay-at-home restrictions, even though four states are still seeing increases in COVID-19, and 21 states have yet to record substantial declines. Many others like New York are seeing steady drops in infections but are still suffering large numbers of sick and dying people.

The result of a premature loosening of restrictions, medical doctors fear, will be new outbreaks of the coronavirus, prolonging the pandemic in the world’s hardest-hit nation.

“The minute we start speeding all this up we get ahead of the science and the virus gets ahead of us,” said Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“Our big fear factor – from a public health perspective is – if you move things too quickly, then the chances are quite high that you will regress and when you regress, you will regret having moved that quickly,” Lushniak told Al Jazeera.

Facing re-election in less than five months, President Trump and his allies in Congress, cheered on by conservative media, have been pushing for a rapid reopening of the US economy even if it means more deaths.

Speaking to an audience of workers at a medical supply distribution centre in Pennsylvania on Thursday, Trump said US doctors and nurses are “running into death just like soldiers run into bullets”.

“It’s incredible to see. It’s a beautiful thing to see. But I really call them ‘warriors’. We are all warriors. Everyone in our country is a warrior,” Trump said.

Pennsylvania is a state Trump likely needs to win again when Americans vote in November. The president pledged to get the US economy moving again by using federal financing to manufacture medical protective equipment and ventilators.

“I understand the president. He is a politician I won’t pass judgement on that. But I don’t agree with what he is doing at all,” said Dr Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“As a leader, the administration needs to provide a whole lot more leadership than it has and I think that’s a fact and history will prove me right on that point,” Benjamin told Al Jazeera.

The US is only just beginning to get adequate testing capacity in place with about 250,000 tests a day and a 10 percent positive rate, a key threshold identified by the World Health Organization. Contact tracing and quarantining capabilities are not ready, public health experts have said.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease scientist in the US government, told Congress on Tuesday that prematurely lifting lockdowns could lead to new outbreaks.

Dr Anthony Fauci speaks remotely during the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on the coronavirus [Win McNamee/Reuters]

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” Fauci told a Senate committee, comments that immediately drew fire from Republicans siding with Trump in the reopening debate.

“We ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief we know what’s best for the economy,” said Republican US Senator Rand Paul. “Dr Fauci, I don’t think you are the end-all. I don’t think you are the one person who gets to make a decision.”

The criticism was echoed in conservative media. Fox News television host Tucker Carlson criticised Fauci for “a lot of wrong predictions” and “buffoon-level stuff”.

Trump waded into the fray shortly after Fauci’s testimony, rebuked Fauci and said his warning about the danger of reopening the economy was “not an acceptable answer”.

The contest between conservatives and scientists is a quintessentially American political fault line, said Keith Humphreys, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine.

“How much freedom should you have to give up for the common good? That’s what we’ve been fighting about for hundreds of years,” Humphreys told Al Jazeera.

Whistle-blower: US could face ‘darkest winter in modern history’ (2:59)

To be sure, there are parts of the country – states like Tennessee, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle – that have done well in controlling the virus, the experts said.

In Tennessee, the governor has allowed restaurants, salons and barber shops to reopen in areas outside the populous city of Nashville. Music venues and bars are to remain closed.

California, the nation’s most populous state, is moving to a second phase of measured reopening as the governor’s office tracks key data indicators signalling when to ease restrictions.

Elsewhere, the contest between reopening and keeping people safe remains as much a political struggle as a public health one.

In Wisconsin, the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court struck down the Democratic governor’s stay-at-home order, a ruling that lifted all restrictions on businesses and gatherings and sent residents in that state scurrying out to bars and restaurants within hours.

Trump won Wisconsin narrowly in 2016 and his prospects in November could well depend on how the reopening gamble works out. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, was among the many US conservatives who cheered the decision.

In Georgia, the Republican governor allowed businesses, restaurants, shopping malls and movie theatres to reopen with limits. But consumer demand has remained light and virus infections have not declined.

“That concerns me,” said Robert Bednarczyk, a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta.

In two weeks, given the virus’s 14-day incubation period, Georgia could be “seeing those numbers coming back”, Bednarczyk told Al Jazeera.

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Age Versus Politics in Determining Virus-Related Attitudes – Gallup

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Epidemiologists have firmly established that the probabilities of getting severe symptoms and dying from the coronavirus are positively correlated with age. This age relationship has a number of causes, including that older people are more susceptible to respiratory issues; have decreased immunity in general; are more likely to have underlying chronic diseases that make them more susceptible to severe consequences of the virus; and are in many instances living in close-quartered retirement and nursing homes.

We can assume that older people are aware of this relationship, although I haven’t seen survey research that directly assesses people’s knowledge of the relationship between age and susceptibility to the virus.

Given this assumption, we would logically conclude that older Americans would be the most likely to worry about getting the virus, most likely to socially isolate themselves and most likely to express trepidation about reduced social distancing. But the data don’t confirm these hypotheses. I’ve been looking at the attitudes and self-reports of behavior for Americans 65 and older, and find that in most instances, this group is indistinguishable in their attitudes and behaviors from those who are younger.

I’m basing this analysis on a large sample of over 12,000 individuals in Gallup’s panel interviewed between May 4 and May 24. I divided the sample into three groups by age: 18-64, 65-74, and 75-90, although for sample-size reasons, in some instances I collapse the last two into those 65 and older.

Worry About Getting the Virus Doesn’t Differ by Age

The first measure of interest is worry or concern about getting the virus, a core question in Gallup’s panel interviewing. Here we find that 49% of those 65-74 and 50% of those 75-90 are very or somewhat worried, compared with 52% of those 18-64. In other words, no significant difference by age.

Americans’ Worry About Getting the Coronavirus, by Age

How worried are you that you will get the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Very/Somewhat worriedNot very/Not at all worried
%%
18-64 years old5248
65-74 years old4951
75-90 years old5050
Gallup Panel, May 4-24, 2020

Logic based on the virus’ real-world impact would lead to the assumption that older people should be more worried about getting the virus. Why aren’t they?

One explanation could involve social isolation. If older Americans are more likely to be confined to their dwelling units and less likely to go out, their lower level of worry could be because they believe they are not in a position to catch the virus.

But our data on social isolation and social distancing don’t strongly support the hypothesis that older people are more homebound. Gallup’s data show that 17% of Americans under age 65 say they are completely isolated, with another 37% saying they are mostly isolated. Older Americans’ reports are not significantly different, with 19% of those 65-74 and 16% of those 75-90 saying they are completely isolated, and 41% and 40%, respectively, mostly isolated.

Americans’ Self-Reported In-Person Contact, by Age

Next, thinking about everything you’ve done in the past 24 hours, which of the following comes closest to describing your in-person contact with people outside your household?

18-6465-7475-90
%%%
Completely isolated yourself, having no contact with people outside your household171916
Mostly isolated yourself, having very little contact with people outside your household374140
Partially isolated yourself, having some contact with people outside your household232433
Isolated yourself a little, still having a fair amount of contact with people outside your household14108
Did not make any attempt to isolate yourself from people outside your household973
Gallup Panel, May 4-24, 2020

A separate question assessing self-reports of social distancing show some differences. Here we find that 65+ adults are about 12 percentage points more likely than those under age 65 to say they are “always” practicing social distancing, but the two groups are more equal when we look at the combined categories of those who report always and “very often” social distancing.

Older Americans are actually slightly more likely than those under age 65 to say they have been out to the grocery store in the previous 24 hours. Older Americans are also more likely to say they have visited a pharmacy and a doctor’s office, hospital or treatment center, no doubt reflecting the higher probability of having medical conditions and prescriptions as age increases.

There is a big difference by age in leaving home to go to work, as we would expect. Older Americans are much less likely to be employed than younger Americans (only 15% of those 65 and older are employed either full or part time in our panel data, compared with 70% of those 18-64). There is a lot of remote working today, but 37% of those who are under age 65 have left their home to go to work within the 24 hours before they were interviewed, compared with 13% of those 65-74 and only 2% of those 75-90.

All in all, older Americans’ worries about getting the virus may not be as high as expected because they are less likely to be working and are more likely to perceive themselves to be always practicing social distancing. But the data on self-reports of contact with other people and the frequency with which older and younger people get out to the store, pharmacy and doctor’s offices don’t confirm that hypothesis.

Partisanship Much More Powerful Than Age

There are often confounding influences at work when we look at the relationship between a demographic characteristic and another variable. Most demographic characteristics are associated with other characteristics, and sometimes those relationships help explain what’s behind an initial finding.

In the current situation, we know that politics has an inordinately large role in determining virus-related attitudes and behavior, and that political identity is age-related.

Older Americans are substantially more likely to identify as Republicans than those under age 65. Republicans are much less worried than Democrats about the virus and less likely than others to socially isolate themselves. This could mean that the lack of higher levels of worry on average among older Americans is caused by their greater likelihood to be Republican.

The data, however, show that older Democrats are no more likely to worry about getting the virus than younger Democrats, and older Republicans are only slightly more likely than younger Republicans to worry. This means there is no hidden effect of party in the age finding. No matter how we might hypothetically change the proportions of Republicans or Democrats among older Americans in the sample, there would not be a significant age skew in worry about the virus.

The same pattern holds when we look at the relationship between age and social isolation. There is little variation across age in social isolation among Democrats, while 65 and older Republicans are only slightly more likely to say they are social isolating than those who are younger.

The remarkable thing about these findings is the degree to which the subjective factor of partisanship is a much more powerful correlate of worry about the virus and self-isolation than the objective factor of age.

I call age an objective factor because the relationship between age and higher probabilities of having severe symptoms and mortality from the coronavirus is well-established. Yet, these objective facts don’t appear to make a great deal of difference to older Americans on the measures we have looked at; older Americans aren’t a lot different than those who are younger, in terms of their worry and social isolation. But one’s political self-identity makes a huge difference on these same measures. Among Americans of all age groups, Democrats are overwhelmingly more likely to say they are worried about getting the virus and are more likely to be socially isolating themselves than those who identify as Republicans. And prior research shows that these political differences are not the result of where the two partisan groups live.

Worry about getting the virus, in short, is to a significant degree a subjective phenomenon that arises from one’s political and ideological identity, and that in turn leads to big differences in actual behavior relating to the virus. The objective facts, at least based on age data, don’t seem to make a great deal of difference.

Organizations May Need to Take Partisanship of Their Members Into Account

Organizations developing their reopening plans are in many cases focusing on age as a major consideration. Religious organizations, for example, are now grappling with decisions on when and how to reopen to in-person worship in their sanctuaries, temples and mosques. In-person worship, in most instances, is skewed toward older parishioners. Religious leaders might initially jump to the conclusion that their older members would disproportionately be worried about coming back, leading to a decision to delay reopening and continue with virtual worship as a complete or parallel option.

Other entities that disproportionately depend on older patrons include restaurants, theaters, symphonies, ballet, cruises and travel destinations. All will be affected if their older customers are resistant to returning as customers.

Our data suggest that assumptions about disproportionality of concern among older members, customers and patrons need to be examined closely. Churches and other business organizations may find that the political orientation of their membership and patrons is a more powerful predictor of returning to in-person participation than the members’ and patrons’ average age.

We have some limited data from May 4-10 interviewing that speak to the issue of reopening. The question asked when people would feel comfortable in returning to normal activities if government restrictions were lifted and people were able to decide for themselves how soon they would return to normal day-to-day activities. The overall results may be somewhat dated now, but the relevant finding is the lack of significant differences in the responses by age. Those 65 and older did not differ significantly from those under age 65 in terms of saying they would return right now; after cases decline; after there were no new cases; or when a new vaccine was developed. But, importantly, there were major differences by partisanship, underscoring the basic conclusion of the power of political orientation in determining virus-related attitudes and behavior.

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Life After Lockdown, and the Politics of Blaming China – The New Yorker

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Illustration by Golden Cosmos

Peter Hessler, who reported from China during quarantine, describes the lifting of those restrictions to David Remnick; Hessler’s children are going to school, and he recently went to a dance club. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Evan Osnos explains how blaming China has become a touchstone of the Presidential race in America. Uber-capitalist Mark Cuban describes the government interventions he thinks are necessary to rebuild the economy for a post-COVID “America 2.0”—a program that would please Bernie Sanders. And Susan Orlean tries her hand at origami.


Peter Hessler on Life After Lockdown

Peter Hessler reports from Chengdu, China, on what life after lockdown looks like, and why the experience in the U.S. will be very different.


The Rise of Anti-China Rhetoric

The staff writer Evan Osnos explains Washington’s obsession with China, and how it might shape the 2020 election.


Mark Cuban Wants to Save Capitalism from Itself

A reality-show mogul and multibillionaire offers a surprising approach to the economic crisis: socialism.


Katy Waldman on Comic Novels

A books columnist picks three novels to bring humor to dark times.


Susan Orlean Gets a Lesson in Origami

Who knew origami was a growth industry?


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Politics Podcast: What Biden’s VP Picks Say About Him – FiveThirtyEight

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Given that presidential nominees choose their running mates without any formal input from voters, how they choose can say a lot about the candidates and their views of their party and the country. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, Perry Bacon Jr. and Julia Azari discuss the considerations former Vice President Joe Biden is making as he vets potential running mates — and what this says about his campaign.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

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