Viral Geography and Political Calculus

III.  Pandemic in an Anti-Science Era:  Reflections from and for STS

The Trump presidency and its relationship to science and truth have prompted both reflection and action by STS scholars, including contributors to a recent thematic collection published in early 2020 in Engaging Science, Technology, and SocietyFor this newsletter, we requested that the contributors to that collection re-visit the arguments made there in a series of brief commentaries in order to speak to our unfolding experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit the ESTS website to read the original collection, edited by Daniel Lee Kleinman, in addition to the commentary below.

Viral Geography and Political Calculus

Michael Lynch

By Michael Lynch, Cornell University

I expect that many of us frequently examine the continually updated maps and charts that plot the distribution of COVID-19 cases and deaths over time by nation and local region.   One thing that I have noticed (and I’m sure that many others also have) is that numbers of cases in US states and counties tend to vary with the density of the local population.  Reasons for this association are not difficult to fathom: the chance of exposure and the intensity of exposure are much higher for people in densely populated neighborhoods, where many economically struggling immigrants and racial/ethnic minority members live and work.  The opposite is the case in places like upstate New York, where I live, where several nearby, predominantly white, sparsely populated counties currently register relatively few cases per 100,000 in population. Some of these counties continue to have zero recorded deaths attributed to the pandemic.

These geographical distributions roughly resemble those on maps compiled after recent elections, which show predominantly Democratic-voting precincts concentrated in inner cities and predominantly Republican precincts in outlying areas.  The upstate counties in New York State tend to vote solidly Republican, unlike in the downstate metropolis.  Although this correlation may be spurious, it is having real political consequences:  residents of rural states and counties have less to fear from the virus (at least so far, and with some notable exceptions).  One might say that rural/exurban residents already are partly “sheltered in place” from the pandemic as a consequence of where they live.

Of course, all this could change, but thus far this geographic advantage is fueling the divisive viral politics we have seen unfolding as a momentous election looms ahead.  On April 27, President Trump responded in a tweet to a request by governors of hard-hit states for federal government aid to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help?”  A couple of months earlier, when he was downplaying the threat of the virus, he told his supporters in a South Carolina rally, “The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” and that they were spreading a “hoax” in hopes of unseating him in the upcoming election.

Although Trump often seems too unhinged to merit criticism for being a calculating politician, it is hard not to see the calculus here.  There is a sense that for Trump’s base the virus is less a part of their life-worlds than it is for inner-city residents of large apartment complexes, who hold jobs deemed essential and depend on public transportation to get to work.  And, sad to say, in Trump’s ongoing reality TV show, the minority and immigrant populations who have been most exposed to infection, with non-existent or inferior social and medical support, are treated like the virus itself, as not quite “real”.


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