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COVID-19: Infections, Deaths, and the Partisan Divide

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Ramesh Ponnuru attempted to address a very serious topic in an article titled Virus Keeps Refusing to Follow Anyone’s Partisan Script.  His goal, apparently, was to forgive Republicans for their lack of seriousness about the pandemic.  His basic argument is contained in this passage.

“The more partisan the narrative, the worse it has fared. Liberals have spent much of the pandemic fretting about red-state irresponsibility. But the four states with the highest percentage of Covid deaths all vote consistently for Democratic presidential candidates. Florida, though a consistent target of progressive criticism, has a death rate well below the national average. Some conservatives, for their part, predicted that we’d stop hearing about the pandemic as soon as the election was over. Instead, the deadliest weeks came after it, and both politicians and the press kept talking about it.”

To begin with, the term “percentage” of deaths is ambiguous.  The appropriate metric is deaths per capita, or deaths per population number.  It is not clear what he is referring to.  In addition, deaths are not a partisan indicator.  No one has suggested that anyone who is sick from the virus decides whether or not to seek medical help based on their political party, or that the healthcare received is politically tinged.  And analyzing deaths can get very complicated.  The early pandemic hit most heavily in eastern cities with high population densities and no experience in dealing with this particular virus.  A lot has been learned since then.  Mortality rates will also depend on demographics: the fraction of the population that are seniors and/or minorities, quality of the healthcare system, number of members per household, population in nursing homes, and so on. 

A much more relevant metric for determining the effect of partisan differences would be infection rates.  After some head scratching, the experts have almost totally focused on mask wearing as the most effective way of avoiding infection.  And mask wearing is the most contentious partisan issue.  As one might expect the Democrats are more likely to wear a mask as common courtesy to others around them.  The Republicans are more likely to refuse to wear a mask as an expression of their individual license to do whatever they please.  So, how has this worked out in terms of statewide infection rates.

The worldometer website has been tallying statewide and countywide data on infections and deaths over the course of the pandemic.  Numbers from the end of the day of March 9, 2021 will be used.  The average infection rate for the nation as a whole, in infections per million population, was 90,207.  Taking any statewide number over 100,000 as an arbitrary indicator of a high-rate state, we find 14 in that category: Arizona, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Utah, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and North Dakota.  Of those 14 states, 13 are red states, suggesting that Republican voters have managed to put themselves at greater risk of infection.  The partisan divide matters.

The highest infection rate was found in North Dakota one of our most sparsely populated states (with the second highest being South Dakota).  In the Dakotas, one must work hard to find somebody to be infected by. The ratios of per capita infections in North Dakota to the state with the lowest rate (in the contiguous states, it is Vermont) was 5.05. 

So yes, the partisan divide really does matter.


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