Why politicians’ COVID-19 gaslighting is so dangerous to democracy

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THE CONVERSATION

This article originally appeared on The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Jason Hannan, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Communications, University of Winnipeg

In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 uprising on the United States Capitol, the Republican Party faced a crucial moral test: to reject the baseless conspiracy theory that the 2020 general election was “stolen” from Donald Trump or embrace this dangerous lie as official party dogma.

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After measuring the political winds, the Republican Party cynically chose to embrace the lie, going so far as to ostracize party members who supported the truth. In doing so, the GOP solidified its transformation from a political party to a political cult.

After two years of recognizing the dangers of COVID-19, something eerily similar has happened with public health policy in the Western world.

‘To live with’

Federal and municipal governments in North America, Europe and Australia have begun lifting basic protections such as vaccination and mask mandates, ending public testing, ending research on contacts and retain critical public health data, such as number of cases, number of hospitalizations, sewage results and even the size of local outbreaks. Managing the pandemic has shifted from a public health issue to an individual issue.

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The now quaint 2020 slogan “We’re all in this together” has since been replaced by the dreadful prescription – “Assess your own risks”. Political leaders backtracked, urging their constituents to “learn to live with COVID”.

The dismantling of the pandemic infrastructure, however, suggests that these voters must instead learn to live as if COVID-19 no longer exists. By removing the basic protections that have allowed us to survive the pandemic over the past two years, public health policy has effectively been rewritten in light of the desires, demands and delusions of anti-maskers, anti- vaxxers and COVID-19 deniers.

Fiction versus reality

Western politicians and public health officials have managed to create a fictional universe in which we have reached endemicity, where the infection is now “mild” and becomes “milder” by the variant, where COVID-19 is “like the flu”, where mass infection builds a “wall of immunity” and where voluntary vaccination alone is our ticket out of the pandemic.

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This sunny image has many problems.

First, not only are we far from endemic, but there would be nothing to celebrate if we were.

Second, the flippant talk of a mild infection overlooks the frightening vascular and neurological effects of COVID-19. Those infected are at an increased risk of serious heart complications, including inflammation, acute coronary heart disease, and cardiac arrest. Even mild cases can lead to changes in brain structure.

According to a recent meta-analysis, 43% of COVID-19 survivors experienced symptoms of so-called long COVID, signaling a public health, economic and educational nightmare ahead. For a supposedly mild illness, COVID-19 notably led to the collapse of hospitals in the UK and Canada in April 2022.

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Gas public lighting

Yet none of these grim realities are acknowledged by politicians who insist that we “just move on” and “get on with our lives,” and who repeat the “freedom convoy” talking point that we don’t don’t need to be ‘afraid’.

There is a chasm between the COVID-19 fictions of politicians and the realities of hospital wards and lengthy COVID clinics. Minimizing, dismissing and denying these realities amounts to street lighting, a reckless political maneuver with troubling implications for the future of Western democracies.

It turns out that we still live in a post-truth world. But this time, it is not Donald Trump who distorts reality.

Instead, it is federal and municipal governments across the political spectrum illuminating their citizens and constituents, denying the reality and severity of a pandemic that is once again tearing our communities apart with frightening speed, driven by a highly contagious and rapidly evolving virus.

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undermine democracy

A functioning democracy needs common ground on which its citizens can agree. COVID-19 gaslighting is eroding that common ground. It erodes trust in government and public health, and in the institutions, like school boards, that follow their lead.

It undermines the public authority of medicine and biomedical science to guide us through the pandemic. Just as climate change has been subjected to “both sides,” we are now hearing more and more about “both sides” of COVID-19. When politicians encourage us to “move on,” COVID denial becomes respectable opinion.

Despite our habit of discussing “both sides” of many issues, some things are simply not a matter of political opinion: whether Trump won the 2020 election, whether climate change is real, and whether we are still in a pandemic.

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Unfortunately, Western political leaders and some public health officials have decided to indulge in the worst of individualistic impulses: the desire to choose one’s own reality, including the fantasy that the pandemic is over.

It is the unfortunate consequence of a market-driven society in which truth is just another commodity, where the line between citizenship and consumption is dissolved and where many feel entitled to overrule the results of elections and the pandemic, just as they would an order from Amazon. .

Erosion of trust

Perhaps most tragically, COVID-19 gaslighting is eroding our trust in each other. It feeds our mutual mistrust, our paranoia, our hostility and our division. When the risk of infection is inherently social, the promotion of harmful ideological concepts like “individual choice” and “assessing one’s own risk” only encourages us to blame ourselves in the event of an epidemic.

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Public health policy inspired by the Hunger Games is confusing and chaotic.

COVID-19 gaslighting will only deepen our existing social divisions and exacerbate our culture wars, further eroding our already fragile democracies. As SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve, surprising, disappointing and frustrating us at every turn, COVID-19 gaslighting will drive citizens deeper into isolated, self-enclosed silos, online and offline.

This will further encourage violent trolling of health care workers and scientists, and fuel dangerously reactionary politics. Extremism is the only possible beneficiary of this erosion of public trust.

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Jason Hannan does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Disclosure information is available on the original site. Read the original article: https://theconversation.com/why-covid-19-gaslighting-by-politicians- https://theconversation.com/why-covi

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