Talking Points

How Omicron scrambled Democrats' responses to COVID

For much of the last two years, differing approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic mapped neatly onto our political divisions. The right battled against lockdowns and other protective measures, while folks on the left doggedly wore masks and celebrated vaccines. Polarization won again. But the latest wave of coronavirus cases — probably fueled by the Omicron variant — has scrambled those lines: While conservatives remain anti-everything, Democrats and liberal pundits seem confused and at odds about the way forward.

This is especially apparent at the state and local levels. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul this week ordered a new mask mandate, and outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to distribute masks and tests, with the city's restaurants closed to anybody who hasn't been vaccinated. But Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), on the other hand, said this week he wouldn't try to impose a mandate on his state, declaring that "the emergency is over" and that "at this point, if you haven't been vaccinated, it's really your own darn fault." Other Dem governors, like Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer and Kansas' Laura Kelly have come out publicly against President Biden's vaccine mandate, complicating his efforts to protect Americans against the virus.

You can see these divisions in the culture, too. Just one example: This week, The Atlantic's Ian Bogost wrote about the despair he was feeling as Omicron becomes ascendant. "The coronavirus was once 'novel' because it was new," he wrote. "Now it feels both ancient and eternal." A minor backlash ensued. "Get vaccinated. Get the booster. Live your life for god's sake," responded Vox's Sean Illing. "This despair porn is ridiculous."

The debates are understandable. Every moment of hope ("hospitalizations are falling quickly in South Africa!") is quickly followed by a moment of dread ("maybe Omicron isn't less severe after all"). America's scientific institutions haven't always acquitted themselves very well over the last two years. And there are legitimate questions about how to balance COVID precautions against our collective mental health and the need for our kids to go to school. More than that, we're all kind of tired of this battle, and ready to move on.

The fact that many American hospitals are at the breaking point goes under-mentioned in these discussions, however. 

In the absence of clarity, our leaders fall back on old habits. In a deep-blue state like New York, Hochul can act aggressively in the knowledge that voters won't punish Democrats. In red and purple climes, Democratic governors have an incentive not to anger conservative voters too much. It all makes sense. But it also means our collective and individual responses to COVID, which were never that coherent to begin with, are becoming less so. Let's hope we don't regret it.