In U.S., political reflexes slowly bending to will of COVID-19 pandemic

By Canadian Press

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s defiance seems to be softening: after shrugging off calls for a COVID-19 test and to stop touching people, he’s since tested negative and conceded that in politics, shaking hands is a hard habit to break.

But the concept of social distancing has clearly been an uphill battle for the president of the United States — as well as for other American political figures for whom public contact is their stock in trade.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, triggered a backlash Saturday when he tweeted a photo of himself and his family from a “packed” restaurant in Oklahoma City. His mayoral counterpart David Holt did something similar — a photo of a plate of food with the caption, “Eat local.”

Stitt eventually deleted his tweet but Holt stood his ground, arguing that without evidence of community spread, it would be irresponsible to pre-emptively spread alarm.

“The next escalation in this process might include deprivations of liberty that must be based on the soundest possible grounds,” Holt tweeted Sunday. “I have to have the support of public health officials in making that argument.”

Before day’s end, a case of community spread led Holt to declare a state of emergency.

Social media is likely playing a major role in influencing public behaviour, both good and bad — whether it’s buying absurd quantities of toilet paper or deciding it’s safe to go out for dinner, said Dominique Brossard, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“People that think you are overreacting when you say we need to get social distance between different individuals may tend to share that opinion with others that think like them,” said Brossard, an expert on the nexus between public opinion and controversial scientific issues.

“Groupthink does happen, and you reinforce your views when you share with people who think like you. So certainly, these sorts of dynamics are present on social media, and can be very damaging at times such as this, when we really want the large majority of the population to react a certain way.”

The apparent division in U.S. public opinion about the outbreak, which has largely fallen along partisan lines, is a reflection of the broader political schisms in American life, Brossard added.

In Canada, unlike his U.S. counterpart, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been in a self-declared quarantine since Thursday, when his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau began showing symptoms of COVID-19 and later tested positive. His Conservative rivals, far from shrugging off the outbreak as “fake news” or a liberal-media conspiracy, have been demanding that the Liberal government do more to contain the spread.

Those critics took issue with Trudeau’s announcement Monday that while Canada will turn away most foreign visitors starting Wednesday, U.S. citizens — many of whom live and work daily on opposite sides of the Canada-U.S. border — are exempt from the ban.

“The exemption of U.S. residents is a big hole in the plan,” tweeted Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, a former Conservative MP. “This needs to be the next step.”

Officials familiar with the government’s thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss behind-the-scenes matters publicly, insisted the exemption was more about accommodating Americans who need to enter the country to do their jobs than it was about preventing retaliation from a White House with a history of lashing out when provoked.

Interestingly, when asked if he was considering closing the northern border, Trump made it sound as if he’d really rather not.   

“We think about it; if we don’t have to do it, that’ll be good,” he said. “We are talking about different things, but we’ll see. Right now we have not decided to do that.”

Indeed, there was more evidence Monday that, after many weeks, an unconventional and unpredictable president is growing more comfortable with the reality of the situation, and playing the crisis-mode commander-in-chief’s traditional role of comforting the American people without obscuring the truth.

He stopped trying to claim the spread of the virus was under “tremendous control,” he acknowledged the likelihood of a recession and that things would likely get worse before they get better, and he even praised the efforts of the mainstream media, which he said has “been very fair.”

“It’s bad,” Trump said of the situation in the U.S. right now. “But we’re going to be a best case, not a worst case.”

He also presided over the release of some fairly restrictive new guidelines for Americans, including having older people stay in their homes and avoiding restaurants, bars, discretionary travel and crowds of more than 10 people for the next 15 days. Anyone who tests positive for the virus should result in everyone in the household staying home.

“Some may look at them and say, they’re going to be really inconvenient for people,’ and some will look and say, ‘Well, maybe we’ve gone a little bit too far,'” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

But infectious disease outbreaks invariably outpace even the most accurate tracking information, he said.

“It isn’t an overreaction. It’s a reaction that we feel is commensurate (with what) is actually going on in reality.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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