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Partisan experiences of Covid-19 in the United States of America

Written by Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs and Manisha Anantharaman

The Covid-19 crisis, like almost everything else in contemporary American life, is a partisan issue. With the fraught Presidential elections fresh in our minds, it should come as no surprise that how people responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns in their everyday lives differed significantly on the basis of their political beliefs. In our interviews with 15 middle and upper-class Washington state residents, we found marked differences related to perceptions of what counted as an “essential” activity. While Republicans were more likely to frequent  stores and assert the need to socialize and celebrate important holidays with family and friends, Democrats restricted travel and social activity, and were willing to wear masks and limit interactions in an effort to protect themselves and others while carrying out everyday tasks like shopping for groceries.

Fundamentally, Democrats saw restrictions on everyday life as necessary, while Republicans were less convinced and trusting of government guidelines and orders.  This partisan division undermines our collective abilities to develop and implement strong and effective policies to address health and environmental problems that require behavior change, be it regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, or another very polarizing issue, climate change.

In this blog we explore three of these different partisan responses to changes in everyday life in relation to shopping, travel and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The US and Covid-19 response

The decentralized federal system of the United States compromised a coherent Covid response from the very beginning. The US is made up of 50 states and is the third most populous country in the world with a population of 328 million. It has just passed 10 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and is among the top 15 countries with the most Covid-19 deaths per capita. Indeed, because the United States is a federal system with separation of powers between the state and national governments, and because of inaction, confusion and lack of leadership from the federal government, state governors have played a critical role in directing responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, many states, cities and counties ordered school closures and other shut-downs in advance of the federal directives.

Figure 1. Source: Our World in Data

Fifteen interviews were conducted in June 2020 with residents in King County, Washington where the first Covid-related death was reported in the US in March 2020. Washington was among the first states to issue a shelter-in-place order and the Democrat governor Jay Inslee has taken a relatively quick and aggressive response to containment. For example schools have not re-opened and virtual teaching has continued in Autumn 2020. Due to these measures, cases were relatively steady over the summer and into early autumn. However, at the time of writing that is no longer the case with escalating community spread.

Figure 2 Source: Guardian

‘Essential’ shopping & social distancing

Covid-19 changed how people shopped, but to different degrees. Vulnerable and older individuals turned to family, friends or store staff to help them social distance by doing the shopping for them. For example, Kathy (68), a retired woman living alone in a Seattle suburb, talked about her daughter doing weekly shopping trips for her so she did not have to risk going to stores. Kathy lamented not being able to pick out her own produce, missing her autonomy pre-Covid, expressed in frequently ‘sneaking’ out to the store.  Sarah (73) shifted to curb-side pickup to protect her husbands’ health as he had a pre-existing condition that made him more vulnerable to the virus. Like Kathy, she was frustrated at not being able to shop herself as the store staff sometimes made mistakes with the order, she said.

Figure 3 Betty 64 “First step is getting on mask before going into store, then disinfecting cart with wipes I bring with me. I always used to buy groceries for one or two days of meals but now I make a list and menus for at least a week or more (left). Signs to promote social distancing. People are not able to follow even these simple directions. They are often the people who don’t wear masks (right).”

Wearing masks, disinfecting shopping carts or reading glasses, doing bigger shops and going less frequently had now become “normal” aspects of provisioning the home. These risk-mitigation measures were talked about in much greater detail by Democrats.

However, not everyone reduced the frequency of trips or wore masks until it was required by law, for instance, “There was one week where we went to the store three times and we just got ice-cream. I laughed because I’d pull up to the counter and I’m like, ‘This is my essential shopping trip’, and the cashier is just laughing because it was so ridiculous. Everyone else is there all masked and gloved up and they’re getting their actual staples for two weeks, and I’m in there getting ice-cream” (Ashley, 40)

Ashley was working long hours as a business manager. Eating junk food was a way to deal with stress and thus she felt it was ‘essential’ shopping. These sorts of stories were less common in Democrat participant’s accounts as it was more typical to emphasise how they (carefully) followed social distancing guidelines in order to mitigate  risks to themselves and others. 

Holiday travel and flying in the future

Covid-19 transformed the mobility patterns and expectations of our interviewees. All our interviewees were travelling less, commenting on how visits to the gas station to refuel had become more infrequent. Indeed, and in a development that might be positive from a sustainability perspective, many appreciated not having to spend 40-120 minutes every day driving to and from work. One interviewee even talked about his recent decision to find an apartment close to work, even if it meant giving up square-footage or a yard. He never wanted to go back to such a long commute, he declared.

Yet again there was a partisan difference in the appetite for, and perceptions of risk related to, holiday travel and flying. Our Republican participants had flown since the start of the pandemic. They wore masks on the plane and commented on travel being uneventful and even enjoyable because the airports were largely deserted. Their reflections were related more to the difficulty of being respectful of others’  perceptions of risk while doing what made sense to them. One participant recounted a story of a friend whose family members disapproved of his decision to travel and refusing to see him for several weeks after he returned:

“I have a buddy who was supposed to come with us to Texas but his sister found out about it. She was like, ‘okay, you can go but then you won’t see your niece and your nephew for two plus weeks, like you have to quarantine from us’. So because of that he cancelled his trip with us. But the group of friends [who were also travelling together to Texas], they then gave him a bunch of crap for it.” (Jenny, 38)

There was often mention of additional stress to socialising, now complicated by a perceived need to communicate with others about how they were interpreting social distancing rules. Jenny emphasised not judging or teasing her friend as she could relate – as many interviewees could – to having moments of trying to ‘follow the rules’ while perceiving that others thought they were not acting as they should.  Similarly, another Republican interviewee talked about wanting to make sure she respected other peoples’ precautions while going about daily life, admitting this was easier said than done.

Nonetheless, in comparison Democrats reported not leaving Washington, not flying, and even excitement for trips that were 1-2 hours away, which would have been mundane in the past. This included people whose identified with being a traveller:

“I’m literally somewhere every month either like going somewhere by myself seeing new places or visiting friends. I’m always somewhere. I want to say the last three or four years I’ve done international trips, two or three times a year and then again, usually every month I’m somewhere outside Washington. Now I get excited when I go drive down to Olympia [1-hour south of Seattle] to see my parents” (Matt, 32)

For Democrats like Matt, it was typical to worry about the safety of staying in an Airbnb, hotel or getting on a plane and many didn’t expect to go back to those activities in the short term. They were resigned to waiting till there is a vaccine – whether there were travel restrictions or not. One family was even toying with buying a second home as a result. However, almost all our interviewees missed flying and being able to travel for work or vacation, hinting at potential for future rebound for this high consumption activity. For our relatively advantaged sample, flying was frequent before the pandemic and many missed taking regular monthly trips out of state, chafing at the lack of freedom.

Covid-19 and a racial justice reckoning 

This summer, many US cities, prompted by the shock and horror at the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, also saw a wave of protests in opposition of police brutality and structural racism against Black Americans. Seattle was no exception witnessing protest marches of over 60,000 people and continuous occupation of the ‘Capital Hill Autonomous Zone’ in June. The city was rocked by violence during the time of our interviews, with police frequently resorting to pepper spray and tear gas to control protests, and with multiple fatal shootings breaking out amongst some civilians.

Figure 4 Source: Seattle Met

How our interviewees made sense of these protests and the necessity for them when the city was otherwise locked-down due to Covid-19 also reflected partisan divisions. Democrats who were very concerned about social gatherings or grocery shopping trips also expressed some concern about the virus spreading at the protests, but regarded the protests as necessary and looked for other ways to connect and contribute to the BLM struggle. For example, as one interviewee said: 

“I would typically have been downtown protesting. I feel really strongly about what’s going on with Black Lives Matter. I’ve learned a lot about that. I have taken to holding my sign with a few other members of the Neighbourhood Association twice a week. There’s [only a] few of us but we have gotten a nice response. I don’t feel like it’s safe for me to be doing those kinds of things [larger protests] right now just because there’s very little social distancing. People are wearing masks but they are just all together” (Kathy, 69)

In contrast, some Republicans invoked the protests as a means of accusing Democratic elected officials of hypocrisy. While Washington State had banned gatherings of more than 10 people, Seattle’s mayor and other democratic elected officials supported the peaceful protests and allowed them to continue. Jenny expresses her frustration at her boyfriend’s leisure activities being limited with motorcycle rallies being prohibited while what she calls “riots” are allowed to continue: 

“My boyfriend is a part of a motorcycle club [and] there’s usually rides all summer long. There are large events you have to go to but because we can’t have large events in Washington, unless they’re riots, apparently, or protesting […] Usually there’s at least two events every weekend that he’s going to, so wow that is a change for him” (Jenny, 38)

Our mostly white sample in a state with a very small African American population was largely protected from the deadly impacts of the pandemic in the US, where Black or African Americans are more than twice as likely to die from the disease as White Americans, and where job losses have disproportionately impacted women of color. This  points to the ways in which the experience of the pandemic has also been differentiated by race, class and geography. The experiences of our socio-economically privileged sample also provide a sharp contrast with media reporting on how the pandemic has brought severe economic hardship to working class families, particularly families of color. While newspaper articles and research studies warn about mass unemployment, increased food insecurity and a coming wave of evictions, our relatively advantaged interviewees talked about the ways in which the Covid-19 crisis had also provided some silver-linings, by slowing things down, giving them more time to spend with their families and to improve their homes and gardens, and by eliminating tiresome and long commutes from the suburbs to the city. Our study suggests that the experiences and responses to Covid-19 are differentiated by race, class and political belief, pointing to the need for a renewed focus on social differentiation in studies of everyday life and sustainable consumption.

About the authors

Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs is an interdisciplinary energy researcher interested in how ‘normal’ expectations of home are becoming increasingly energy demanding. Much of her work aims to bring the wealth of scholarship on the meaning and making of home into energy debates. Katherine is a Senior Researcher in Sustainability at Imagination Lancaster, Lancaster University.

Dr Manisha Anantharaman is an Associate Professor of Justice, Community and Leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California, USA. Her research and teaching interests connect sustainability and social justice, applying participatory and ethnographic methodologies to examine how economic and political ideologies, social identities, and power relations impact how sustainability is conceptualized and enacted at multiple scales. Her publications include an edited book on “The Circular Economy and the Global South” (Routledge, UK). 

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