Voters are not worried about Covid. Politicians should be.

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Political scientist Dan Drezner asks a very good question: Why, according to a recent poll, do American citizens no longer view the coronavirus pandemic as a big deal? In fact, of 12 issues ranked in order of public concern in a Pew Research Center survey last month, Covid-19 finished dead last. Unemployment is seen as a bigger concern, which is impressive considering the job market is about as healthy as it’s ever been.

For Drezner, the lack of concern is “crazy” as the United States crosses the one million death mark. But it is also understandable, consistent with public health statistics and the messages conveyed by opinion leaders. It is true, as Drezner says, that the number of cases has increased over the past six weeks or so. It is also likely that for various reasons current statistics underestimate cases. However, hospitalization statistics are still relatively low. The number of patients in intensive care units has barely increased from post-Omicron lows and is still essentially at its lowest rate since the start of the pandemic in the United States. Overall hospitalization isn’t that low, but it’s still lower than all but a few months over the past two years.

In addition to this, it is plausible that the number of hospitalizations could be inflated compared to the pre-Omicron, pre-vaccine number, as there is evidence that people hospitalized for other reasons are more likely to be tested. positive. And then there’s the big problem: the average daily death toll is still falling and now stands at 301. It’s devastating, sure, but only a few months have improved since the pandemic began and the maximum number was 10 times the current. rate.

Moreover, Americans are encountering fewer and fewer official reminders of the lingering threat. A handful of local or state governments have reimposed some masking requirements and other preventative measures, but across most of the country, governors and mayors aren’t talking about the pandemic as much as they used to. Nationally, Republicans rarely talk about it, and President Joe Biden has spent a lot more time lately talking about inflation and Ukraine.

I also suspect that the end of the national mask mandate for public transport signaled to many people that the pandemic was no longer a high priority. That the warrant was overturned by a judge rather than removed for public health reasons by government officials or elected politicians seems like the kind of detail most people don’t hear or ignore. It is true, of course, that only a limited number of people use the affected transport options, but the end of the mandate was big news.

All in all, I’m not surprised that people don’t see this as a big deal.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to politicians, especially Democrats. On the one hand, I still think it’s likely that the pandemic has soured public opinion across the board. For another? That people say they don’t consider the pandemic important now doesn’t mean – at all – that they would still consider it unimportant if a new wave sends people back to hospital, increases the death toll and leads to the reimposition of countermeasures.

In general, the issues people worry about most almost always involve things that are perceived to be wrong when pollsters ask about them; things that go well do not cause alarm. Politicians must therefore interpret the polls very carefully.

This is evident when it comes to the economy. Right now, inflation is the top concern and unemployment the 11th of 12 tested by Pew, but if a deep recession started tomorrow that kept prices from rising while tripling the unemployment rate, exactly no voter would consider what a job well done by the Biden administration. The problem is not that voters are inconsistent; it’s that interpreting a survey of top concerns as a ranking of what voters really care about only misinterprets what they say.

In other words, public opinion research can reveal a lot, but smart politicians know that voters reward incumbents for the good times and punish them for the bad times when Election Day rolls around, no matter what. those same voters thought important six months ago.

I also assume that much of the public opinion about the coronavirus really boils down to advocating for it to go away. And that this applies as much to people who want to end the restrictions as to those who want to keep them. Both sides yearn for some magical way to end it (or, perhaps, make it seem plausible that it never happened in the first place). And really, can you blame anyone? The pandemic has been brutal; everyone is entitled to wishful thinking, whether it makes sense or not.

Well, not everyone. Government bureaucracies and elected officials must look beyond the polls and make their best judgments about how to reduce risk with the least amount of disruption. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. But also, for elected officials, their career depends on it. Because whatever voters say now, they are likely to punish politicians for further pandemic outbreaks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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