One week in an America riven by politics and the plague

Jerry Schwartz

AP – On November 1, as election week in the United States (US) dawned, Dr Juan Fitz lay dying in the same Lubbock, Texas, hospital where he had worked in the emergency room for nearly 20 years.

Months before, he had told a professional journal of his fear that he would bring COVID-19 home to his two young children. But the Army veteran persisted: “Like I tell my students and residents, ‘I am airborne, I am cavalry, I go into the thick of it and, challenged by the situation, find ways to improve and sort things out.'”

Now he was on a ventilator, and his time was ticking away. On that same day, US President Donald Trump sprinted across the country, trying to seal the deal on his re-election in the waning moments of the campaign. At his fifth rally of the day, in Opa-locka, Florida, he lamented that when “You turn on the news, it’s COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.”

When the predominantly mask-less crowd of thousands responded with a chant of “Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!” the president seemed to suggest that he might contemplate dispatching one of the world’s most trusted authorities on the pandemic, Dr Anthony Fauci.

This was just the start of an election week like none other in American history.

People yell as they look through the windows of the central counting board as police were helping to keep others from entering due to overcrowding in Detroit on November 4. PHOTO: AP

Federal authorities sent an astonishing message to the states on August 27, the day Trump accepted the Republican nomination for a second term: Be ready to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine on November 1. The memo stoked suspicions that the administration was going to play politics with the pandemic, rushing a vaccine to the market to bolster its chances.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the election coincided with an astounding escalation in the spread of the disease: Last Friday, even as vote counting continued in Pennsylvania, Nevada and elsewhere, the number of cases reported hit a record 126,480. The death toll that day was 1,146.

Among the dead: David Andahl, 55, a candidate for the North Dakota Legislature. He was careful about the disease but fell ill, said his mother, Pat Andahl. He died on October 5; and about a month later, he appeared to have been elected.

Also, a poll worker in St Charles County, Missouri, who tested positive for the coronavirus on October 30. She worked on Election Day anyway, and died soon after.

Fear of contagion rewrote the rules of this election. There was curbside voting for the infected. Election workers spread out to limit contact. Plexiglass barriers. Tank loads of hand sanitiser — the disinfectant on voters’ hands even caused a ballot scanner to jam at a polling place in Des Moines, Iowa. There also were masks everywhere, though some resisted.

Mostly, there was an unprecedented retreat from in-person voting. For the first time, most Americans — more than 100 million — voted early, by mail or otherwise. And it is the counting of those votes that extended the excruciating wait for an end to this election, opening the door to Trump’s baseless claims that the Democrats were stealing the election from him.

That there are two Americas has never seemed more obvious. Each has constructed its own view of reality – of politics, of the pandemic.

Preliminary results from AP VoteCast — a survey of more than 133,000 voters and non-voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press (AP) by NORC at the University of Chicago — found that about six in 10 voters supporting former vice president Joe Biden called the pandemic the most important issue facing the country. Only one in 10 Biden voters said the economy was most important.

But for half of Trump voters, the top issue was the economy and jobs. An AP analysis found that in 376 counties with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita, 93 per cent of those counties went for Trump. Most were rural. There’s little reason to believe the surge they are experiencing has changed any minds.

Was the die cast with this election — is this the way it will always be? There once was a shared assumption that Americans would come together after an election, however hard-fought.

“You call my candidate a horse thief, and I call yours a lunatic, and we both know it’s just till election day,” said the writer Stephen Vincent Benet in 1942. “It’s an American custom, like eating corn on the cob. And, afterwards, we settle down quite peaceably and agree we’ve got a pretty good country — until next election.”

But Benet also warned: “We cannot be a house divided — divided in will, divided in interest, divided in soul. We cannot be a house divided and live.”