Pandemic primaries: A public health disaster
It’s Tuesday. We’re in the middle of the worst public health crisis America has seen in a century. The bars and restaurants are closed. The polls are open.
For weeks now, experts have said that the key to managing the outbreak and preventing a death toll in the hundreds of thousands is “social distancing.” We’ve been warned to avoid public places and mass transit. The public has been advised to stay indoors as much as possible and work from home if they can.
Liberals have, for the most part, been adamant about adhering to these strictures, which makes it all the more baffling—and hypocritical—that so many have insisted on going ahead with today’s Democratic primary.
Thus far, five states have postponed their primaries due to the coronavirus outbreak, including Ohio, which was supposed to vote today, but the Governor defied a judge’s ruling and ordered polls to stay shuttered.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned against gatherings of 50 or more, and in the chaos of the pandemic, it’s impossible to follow these guidelines during the election. For example, long lines at many polling places make it impractical to maintain the recommended distance of 6 feet between strangers.
There were mass poll closures prior to the primary and a fresh round today, with nearly 800 poll workers in Florida declining to show up. As a result, polling places have become huge vectors for disease with conditions that are likely to help the virus spread.
The CDC has also advised against gatherings of 10 or more people if they serve high-risk populations. Poll workers—who are overwhelmingly elderly volunteers—are themselves largely a high-risk population. It could have a devastating effect from community spread among people in their peer group, leading to an exponential growth in the death toll.
What’s more, polling places are short on the sanitation supplies needed to meet the CDC’s election guidelines.
Early this morning, a younger poll worker in Illinois named Rebecca posted a Twitter thread about the disruptions at her polling place. They started the day without cleaning supplies or a “blue box,” which is needed to vote.
After turning away more than three dozen voters, the polling station finally got its blue box and cleaning supplies: A 75-count pack of disinfectant wipes and an 8-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer to last 11 hours.
We’re at a critical stage of the outbreak right now in terms of what health experts refer to as “flattening the curve.” With the recent spike in cases, we’re currently on a trajectory similar to that of Italy, which suffered catastrophic loss of life.
Countries that have thus far successfully managed the crisis, such as South Korea and China, implemented massive publicly funded testing schemes and mandatory social distancing. The United States has had a shortage of testing supplies, and many are blithely ignoring requests to stay indoors. Moving forward with the primaries is the exact opposite of what good sense and scientific evidence would dictate.
The primary will accelerate the spread of the virus, which means we may soon reach a critical point at which hospitals have to ration care.
A lot of people will argue—quite cynically—that we shouldn’t “politicize” this issue, but it is inherently political, as it involves both public health and democratic elections. It doesn’t matter whether one states the truth because it damages a political opponent or if they do it in the public interest.
And the truth is that Joe Biden’s campaign is so intent on wrapping up the primary as quickly as possible that they are willing to put their disproportionately elderly base in harm’s way.
In his coronavirus address, Biden repeatedly appealed to “science” and emphasized the importance of listening to experts. But in the run-up to today’s election, his campaign has put out misinformation about the risks of voting.
On Sunday night, his official Twitter account told followers that they should go to the polls if they’re “feeling healthy” and “not at risk of being exposed” to the virus.
But one of the most problematic features of the virus is that many carriers are asymptomatic and it takes an average of 5 days to incubate.
That’s a key premise of social distancing: People are supposed to act at all times as if they have the virus. And as we’ve already covered, the aforementioned guidelines, while sound in theory, haven’t worked out particularly well in practice.
On top of that, Biden adviser Symone Sanders told CNN that the CDC had asserted it was “safe out there on Tuesday.” When Bernie’s press secretary Briahna Joy Gray pointed out that this was false, she was accused by multiple Biden supporters as well as Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden of engaging in voter suppression.
Bernie has called for the postponement of the primaries until later in the spring. His campaign has suspended get out the vote efforts in primary states. Instead of urging voters to go out to the polls, spokesman Mike Casca emphasized that it’s a “personal decision,” and the campaign will “respect whichever choice they make.”
In addition to having tragic consequences in terms of public health and safety, the decision to move forward with the primary could carry a grave political cost.
For one, the depressed turnout today hurts faith in the integrity of the process, undermining confidence in the eventual nominee. If people were unable to vote due to fears over the outbreak, they might feel that their voices were neglected or that the vote was illegitimate. This could potentially lead to an increase in abstentionism in November.
And if a drastic spike in cases occurs after the primary in states that voted today, it would be a bad look for Biden, especially if there are large numbers of deaths. Right now, polls in the states that voted show that roughly two-thirds of respondents said they trusted Joe more in a crisis. At the same time, Sanders is consistently rated as more honest. The behavior of Biden’s campaign in pushing people out to vote could cost him significantly in terms of his credibility on the issue.
Furthermore, just given where we are in the curve, a spike is likely to occur in the next week regardless. Even if a causal link between the primaries and the uptick is entirely coincidental, Trump and the Republicans will seize on it.
The Democratic strategy hinges on Biden being less bad than Trump. Because Trump has mismanaged the coronavirus so badly, it’s assumed that the general election will be a blowout, but he’s not as exposed on the issue as one might think (at least not yet). The most recent poll found that a slim majority of Americans approve of the way Trump has handled the crisis so far.
If the outbreak gets worse after the primary, he has a convenient scapegoat. He’ll say that his health officials warned about asymptomatic spread while the Biden campaign opportunistically told his elderly supporters to go to the polls. If just a single person in Florida, Illinois or Arizona dies after voting, their face will be on every television screen during commercial breaks between now and November.
Also, the Trump administration might hit the Democrats from the left yet again. Today, they floated the idea of a temporary basic income to get families through the crisis.
The Democratic Party announced today that they will be working with states to implement mail-in ballots for the remainder of the primary. But it may be too late. The damage is most likely already done.
It’s another example of the atrophy that has set into American politics and evidence of why a forward-looking, progressive approach is needed now more than ever.