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The Continuing Conflicts of COVID-19

Displeased man with cap, blue jeans and sunglasses holding a NO COVID vaccine sign with crowd of people in background. Supporting anti-vaccination movement. Anti-vaxxer activist.

By spring of 2020, COVID-19 had begun to affect everyone, in some form or another. The lingering pandemic has not only brought about severe illness, death and financial hardship but the seemingly never-ending debates over COVID-19 have taken a great toll on personal relationships. Many people have reported long-standing rifts among families, friends, neighbors and co-workers, due to opposing views on the topic. From how best to handle the virus to vaccines and masking mandates, most people are confident that their views are correct and have a hard time even listening to rivalling opinions.

Interestingly enough, many of the current issues over masks and mandates were similarly debated during the influenza pandemic of 1918. At that time, news reached people in a more delayed fashion through radio, newspapers and word-of-mouth. Since then, the invention of television and the internet have ensured timely reception of critical information. Social media has provided platforms to anyone who seeks one and helped to amplify voices. While there are many advantages to the technology we have today, such as being able to share vital pandemic statistics and updates, there are many downsides, namely, misinformation and the spewing of hate. At times, there has been mass confusion over what is truly fact regarding most data pertaining to COVID-19.

Given that the pandemic has greatly affected nearly every aspect of people’s social and economic stability, it is no surprise that COVID has played a huge role in politics over the past two years, says Dr. Pavielle Haines, an assistant professor of political science at Rollins College. “Before COVID, many Americans thought politics did not really matter nor have a big impact on their personal lives, which was never actually true, but COVID has made them realize just how big of an impact politics really does have in their lives; that issues such as mask mandates, quarantining and vaccines are political and have a clear impact on everyone.” One reason Haines gives for this is that “COVID created a very urgent and visceral threat. Anytime anxiety is exceptionally high people tend to suddenly turn their attention to politics. It becomes critical for them to know what the political response is going to be.”

As to why there has been such a divide between political parties since the inception of the coronavirus, Haines theorizes, “America was extremely polarized ideologically and emotionally before COVID but the pandemic accelerated that and, historically, during periods of widespread anxiety, extremists tend to take root and have an opportunity to reach more people and so we are seeing more people who are leaning to the far right or to the far left. The divergence between parties has become much more aggressive, more frantic, less civil and less productive.”

Haines sees this increased interest in the political response to COVID as having both advantages and disadvantages. “People are paying attention to politics which is great and something that is needed for a healthy democracy, but they are also perhaps more polarized and less willing to engage in sensible dialogue,” he says. This has led to many tarnished relationships as people begin to feel they cannot respect or ration with those whose views are so far from their own on issues that matter most to them. It has become common practice for people to immediately dismiss the opinions of another based solely on which political party they belong to. Haines, who specializes in American identity politics, political psychology, political behavior and public opinion, explains a key reason for this is that “we have all of these core identities that we value, such as race and religion. For many, partisanship is also a core identity; it’s central to who they are and, I believe, what is fueling some of these feelings.”

Case in point is the wearing of masks. Some view masks as essential lifesavers while others see them as unnecessary and restrictive to their rights and freedoms. “For many, masks have become somewhat of a symbol of partisanship; if you’re wearing a mask there’s a better chance you’re a Democrat, and if you’re not, there’s a better chance you’re a Republican,” Haines says. People therefore make political judgements on others based simply on a facial covering. Though COVID vaccines are equally as debated, only the wearing of masks, or lack thereof, is immediately identifiable.

Masking has been a big subject of contention when it comes to whether or not school districts should mandate them. Parents opposed to the masking of students cite data showing that the overall risk of children becoming severely ill or dying from COVID is significantly lower than adults. Many pro-mask parents feel mask mandates were needed to not only keep the students and faculty safe but also to decrease the likelihood that children may unknowingly bring the virus back home to medically vulnerable loved ones.

At the start of the 2021-2022 school year Orange County Public Schools issued a mask mandate with the option for parents to opt their child out with a note. A district representative noted that as of November, the district had received mask opt-out notes from just over 8 percent of the overall student population. This past January, OCPS reinstated mask mandates for adults as schools reopened following winter break and as the omicron variant brought about a significant increase in COVID-19 cases. However, given that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature banned face mask mandates at schools and workplaces, students are not required to wear masks although OCPS states they are “strongly encouraged.”

It seems that most children have adapted the mask choices of their parents to their “current normal.”

“I think that parents set the tone at home for what their expectations are as far as mask wearing for their children,” says Scott Howart, OCPS chief of communications. He notes that there doesn’t seem to be any serious student-to-student issues on mask wearing, as some wear them and some don’t, and both groups are supported by teachers and faculty. “Our teachers and administrators have done a great job in creating an environment where students feel free to do what they choose to do, or what their parents have told them to do, as to whether to wear a mask or not.”

Calls and emails to the offices of Gov. DeSantis and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings for comments regarding the handling of the pandemic were not returned. However, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer responded ,saying, “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we as a city faced an unprecedented and challenging time. Despite those challenges, I am proud of the residents who got vaccinated, wore their mask and were compassionate and caring toward each other in our community.”

If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that we never truly know what the future holds, so experts say it’s too hard to tell if life will ever go back to the way it was prior to the pandemic.

“Politically and socially, I don’t foresee things going back to the way they were because too much has changed fundamentally,” Haines says. “However, in terms of personal relationships, I think as the pandemic winds down it’s certainly going to be easier for some reconciliations to take place.

“For democracy to function well people have to be willing to engage and talk with those they disagree with. There has to be dialogue and discourse between them and that starts in the home. I think the best way forward is not to ignore our differences but to talk about them in a more rational manner. Ultimately, neither side may change their mind but understanding where the other person is coming from can be a real game-changer.”