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Jan Hillard: Making sense of COVID-19 — the two faces of public opinion which vary dramatically

There are two faces of public opinion surrounding COVID-19.

One face represents the roughly 75% of the public who support science, believe that COVID 19 requires widespread caution, and trusts the government’s response. This is the face of science and reason.

The other face represents 25% of the public who does not believe the scientific facts about COVID 19 and are suspicious of government’s motives in responding to the virus. This is the face of denial and conspiracy.

The viewpoints of the COVID deniers are heard across the protests that have been taking place in state capitals. Recent reports (see New York Times, April 19) document protesters saying: “I don’t fear COVID,” “If I get the virus I can fight it,” “I won’t socially distance,” “COVID isn’t caught through the air,” “This is a ploy by big pharma to make money,” “The Chinese Communist did this,” and “Kill Fauci.”

Before trying to make sense of the origins of these reactionary beliefs, it is important to reflect upon the wide-spread beliefs of Americans regarding COVID.

The 2/3 face of public opinion

These beliefs have been documented by the Pew Research Center. This survey found that overall 80% of the respondents favored the measures taken to contain the virus (90% support closing schools, 87% support social distancing, 85% understand the need for restaurant take out, and 92% favors closing large gatherings).

In addition, the Pew survey documented broad support for the actions of public officials, at all levels with 75-80% saying officials are doing well. The same holds true for views of health care and doctors with 82% of Americans expressing confidence in treating the virus. It should be noted that while most Americans broadly support the actions taken to address the virus, President Trump does not enjoy this confidence. This supportive public opinion represents far and away most Americans. However, there is a different tale of a public who is suspicious, angry, and distrustful. A public who searches for more simplistic explanations of the complexity that is COVID-19.

The 1/3 fact of public opinion

Many of the simplistic and suspicious explanations of COVID-19 expressed by the 1/3 face of Americans carry a familiar ring.

They resemble conspiratorial thinking. They are characterized by blaming, distrusting, and victimization.

This thinking is not new. It appeared during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, the Vietnam War protests, and the Civil Rights Movement. Framed many years ago by Adorno in his famous F-Scale, conspiratorial believers seek simplicity, someone or some institution to blame, and feel they are victimized by a system that has forgotten them.

The Pew study documents additional views of COVID. For example, 21% felt the risks to be low from the virus. 28% believe the news about the virus is made up including 23% who say they don’t believe the virus has spread to other countries. Alarmingly, 26% believe the virus came from an international lab.

While, less than 30% of the public holds the beliefs of suspicion, doubt, and blame documented the Pew survey, these figures suggest a substantial counterpoint to the majority of opinion and cannot be written off as fringe opinion when it comes to COVID-19.

It should be noted that public opinion does change with time and new facts. However, the bulwark of conspiratorial thinking is very resistant to change and may propel radical actions regarding COVID’s ongoing threat to public safety and health.

Jan Hilliard is a retired Emeriti Faculty of Northern Kentucky University and a senior editor/data-based reporting for the NKyTribune.

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