Covid’s starkly different impact on the young and old has been one of the virus’s defining characteristics. It tends to be mild for children and younger adults but is often severe for the elderly. More than three-quarters of all U.S. Covid deaths have occurred among people 65 and older.
Given these patterns, it seems obvious that older Americans should be more fearful of Covid than younger Americans. Yet they’re not.
That’s one of the striking findings from a new poll that Morning Consult, a survey firm, has conducted for this newsletter: Old and young people express similar concern about their personal risk from Covid. By some measures, young people are actually more worried:
The most plausible explanation for this pattern is political ideology. Older Americans, as a group, currently lean to the right, while younger generations lean to the left. And no other factor influences Covid attitudes as strongly as political ideology, the poll shows.
Across most demographic groups, Americans have broadly similar attitudes toward Covid. It’s true not just of the young and old, but also of men and women, as well as the rich, middle class and poor. The partisan gap, by contrast, is huge:
Many Democrats say that they feel unsafe in their communities; are worried about getting sick from Covid; and believe the virus poses a significant risk to their children, parents and friends. Republicans are less worried about each of these issues.
Who’s right? There is no one answer to that question, because different people have different attitudes toward risk. An acceptable risk to one person (driving in a snowstorm, say, or swimming in the ocean) may be unacceptable to another. Neither is necessarily wrong.
But the poll results suggest that Americans have adopted at least some irrational beliefs about Covid. In our highly polarized country, many people seem to be allowing partisanship to influence their beliefs and sometimes to overwhelm scientific evidence.
Millions of Republican voters have decided that downplaying Covid is core to their identity as conservatives, even as their skepticism of vaccines means that the virus is killing many more Republicans than Democrats.
Millions of Democrats have decided that organizing their lives around Covid is core to their identity as progressives, even as pandemic isolation and disruption are fueling mental-health problems, drug overdoses, violent crime, rising blood pressure and growing educational inequality. As David Hogg, a gun-control activist, tweeted last year, “The inconvenience of having to wear a mask is more than worth it to have people not think I’m a conservative.”
In today’s newsletter, I’m going to focus on two examples of Covid irrationality that the poll highlights.
No vaccine, no worry
The Covid vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing serious illness. If you’re vaccinated, your chances of getting severely sick are extremely low. Even among people 65 and older, the combination of the vaccines’ effectiveness and the Omicron variant’s relative mildness means that Covid now appears to present less danger than a normal flu.
For the unvaccinated, however, Covid is worse than any other common virus. It has killed more than 865,000 Americans, the vast majority unvaccinated. In the weeks before vaccines became widely available, Covid was the country’s No. 1 cause of death, above even cancer and heart disease.
But look at Americans’ level of worry about getting sick, by vaccination status:
It’s a remarkable disconnect between perception and reality. A majority of the boosted say they are worried about getting sick from Covid. In truth, riding in a car presents more danger to most of them than the virus does.
A majority of the unvaccinated, on the other hand, say they are not particularly worried. The starkest, saddest way to understand the irrationality of this view is to listen to the regret of unvaccinated people who are desperately sick from Covid or who have watched relatives die from it.
“There’s nothing that matters more than our freedoms right now,” a California prosecutor said at an anti-vaccine rally in December. She died of Covid this month.
Children in crisis
I know that some Democrats believe that their approach — the emphasis on minimizing any Covid risks — comes with little downside. But the poll results call that argument into question.
One area of agreement among Democrats and Republicans is a widespread concern that pandemic disruptions are harming their children:
People are right to be worried, too. Three medical groups — representing pediatricians, child psychiatrists and children’s hospitals — recently declared “a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.” The worst effects have been on Black and Latino children, as well as children in high-poverty schools.
Many Democrats are effectively dismissing these costs and instead focusing on the minuscule risks of Covid hospitalization or long Covid among children. Most Democrats, for example, say they favor moving classes online in response to Omicron, despite widespread evidence that remote school has failed and little evidence that shutting schools leads to fewer Covid cases.
Closed schools almost certainly do more damage to children and vaccinated adults than Omicron does.
(Here’s much more Morning Consult polling on Covid, going back to early 2020.)
Democrats like to think of their political party as the one that respects science and evidence. And on several issues — vaccines, climate change, voter fraud, Barack Obama’s birthplace and more — that certainly seems to be the case. But just because something is usually true doesn’t mean it always is.
On Covid, both political tribes really do seem to be struggling to read the evidence objectively. As a result, the country is suffering thousands of preventable deaths every week while also accepting a preventable crisis of isolation that’s falling particularly hard on children.
More virus news:
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Disney’s pop hit
The soundtrack to Disney’s “Encanto” has hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s album chart for a second time. If you don’t live with young children, this may be surprising. If you do, you may wonder: “Only twice?”
“Encanto” is an animated movie about a family in Colombia with magical powers, featuring a soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The songs are classic Disney fare fused with salsa, bachata, hip-hop and Broadway. (A Times review called the film “brilliant.”)
Leading the way is the single “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart yesterday. That makes it Disney’s biggest hit in decades, outperforming “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” TikTok has contributed to its success, with people singing along or acting out moments from the song. “I could look at the TikToks all day,” Jared Bush, one of the film’s directors, told The Times. — Tom Wright-Piersanti, a Morning editor
For more: The Wall Street Journal explained what it took to translate “Bruno” into more than 40 languages.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was pitching. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “Jeez!” (five letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. The first Winter Olympic Games opened 98 years ago today in Chamonix, France.