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The Next U.S. Presidential Election will be a Battle Over Pandemic Memory

7 minute read
Steere-Williams is a professor of the history of medicine at the College of Charleston, where he directs the program in Medical Humanities.
Yamey is a physician and professor of global health and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.

When Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor and 2024 presidential hopeful, was inaugurated for a second term in February, DeSantis centered his vision for the next four years on the idea that “freedom lives” in the Sunshine State. Baked into DeSantis’ speech was an emerging battle for the public memory of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the past few years,” he said, “as so many states in our country grinded their citizens down, we in Florida lifted our people up. When other states consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin, Florida stood strongly as freedom’s linchpin.”

Yet behind this soaring rhetoric of liberty lies a very uncomfortable fact that DeSantis wants us to forget: Florida has been among the worst-performing states when it comes to protecting people from COVID-19 deaths.

As Oliver Johnson, mathematician at the University of Bristol, England, noted last December, if Florida were a country, its COVID-19 death rate would put it at “10th worst in the world, behind Peru and various East European countries that got slammed pre-vaccine.”

It’s true that Florida has a high proportion of older people, who face the greatest risk of death from COVID-19 if infected by the coronavirus, and the state’s performance looks better if its COVID-19 death rate is adjusted for age. And when you examine deaths from all causes (known as “all-cause mortality”) over the full three years of the pandemic, Florida’s performance is only a little worse than that of California. But Florida is doing extremely poorly at vaccinating its most vulnerable citizens. Booster coverage among elderly residents of nursing facilities in Florida is the second lowest among all U.S. states, and general booster rates are among the worst in the nation. These critical public health indexes are unlikely to improve, given DeSantis’s embrace of anti-vaccine rhetoric. Such rhetoric plays well with the conservative base that he needs to excite if he is to beat Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary.

Across the country, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, rumored to be a possible presidential candidate if President Biden doesn’t run for a second term, was also sworn in for a second term. He too campaigned under the rhetorical glint of freedom, upheld by his version of the history of the pandemic; and he too had his own struggles curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In our finest hours,” Newsom boasted, “California has been freedom’s force multiplier. Protecting liberty from a rising tide of oppression taking root in statehouses.” Newsom’s version of freedom includes a protection of reproductive rights, access to health care, and green growth, which he contrasted with the January 6th, 2021 attack on the White House amidst turmoil over pandemic policies. In a statement seemingly hurled directly at DeSantis, Newsom argued that “Red state politicians, and the media empire behind them,” are “selling regression as progress, oppression as freedom.”

The context for the continued debates over COVID-19 policy in the U.S. is in part the ongoing death toll of around 2,700 deaths every week. But the subtext is the looming 2024 presidential election. Both likely seeking their respective party’s nomination, DeSantis’ and Newsom’s political platforms squarely rest on a calculated set of claims about how they see the history of the past three years.

As we enter what promises to be a fierce campaign cycle, Americans will be voting for more than their next president. They are voting over the public memory of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Republican and Democratic nominees will present a vision of the past three years that panders to their respective bases and distorts the history of the pandemic. Pandemic memories, in other words, are jarringly malleable political weapons.

Despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the 2022-23 holiday season, around 6 in 10 Americans say they think the worst of the pandemic is behind us. But how do we reckon with the mass death, disability, and orphanhood that COVID-19 caused in the U.S.? As Yea-Hung Chen, epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told NPR: “There are neighborhoods & communities in the U.S. where you have COVID deaths maybe every three homes. It’s just been numbingly awful.”

Some U.S. politicians are attempting to memorialize what we have been through. Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear, for instance, announced in January that state officials are constructing a COVID-19 memorial on the capitol grounds in Lexington to honor the nearly 18,000 Kentuckians who have died of COVID-19. One Houston couple, Mohammed and Ruth Nasrullah, have curated a virtual memorial, “COVID-19 Wall of Memories,” sharing personal stories of 15,000 Americans whose lives were lost to the pandemic.

As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, one centered on how to remember, we might look towards the past. Reeling from World War I and the devastating impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Ohio’s Republican Senator Warren G. Harding spoke before the Home Market Club of Boston on May 14th, 1920, in what became a hallmark speech, “Back to Normal.” His speech is credited as helping him win a convincing victory in the Presidential Election in November 1920 over Democratic candidate James Cox (Harding won 60% of the popular vote). “Poise has been disturbed, and nerves have been wracked, and fever has rendered men irrational,” Harding began. “America’s present need,” he urged, “is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity.”

Taking aim squarely at former president Woodrow Wilson’s progressive foreign and domestic policies, and set against the context of race riots in Chicago, strikes in the steel and meat packing industries, and controversial attempts by local authorities to ban public gatherings and institute mask mandates to curb the flu pandemic, Harding jabbed that “the world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation.” “Let’s get out of the fevered delirium,” Harding concluded, and head towards the “normal forward stride of the American people.”

Harding struck a chord that many Americans wanted to hear in 1920, campaigning on freedom, resiliency, and, above all else, normalcy. And in part it worked, ushering in a wave of so-called post-pandemic normalcy, a term coined in 1976 by historian Alfred Crosby in America’s Forgotten Pandemic. Many Americans today, gripped by the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic of the past three years, will likely resonate with the same campaign promises, which is why on both sides of the political aisle, DeSantis and Newsom are gearing up their campaigns under the banner of freedom. But, like Harding’s victory in 1920, the deeper battle this election cycle will be over pandemic memory.

The U.S. ended 2022 with something of a cultural amnesia over the ongoing pandemic, with a wish to forget the past three years. Throughout the pandemic, one common, nonpartisan frustration has been: “why does the pandemic have to be so political?” The answer is that politics always permeates public health. What we need to brace for now is the politics of historical memory. How will the first three years of the pandemic be remembered? How will they be forgotten?

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