Opinion: Navigating a pandemic is tough and politicians don’t help

When Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday evening that her party opposed mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for health and education workers, the backlash (including from an NDP MP) was so loud I could hear it here in Washington. Then she reversed course quickly.

“I regret the comment. I was wrong,” Horwath said less than 24 hours later.

That episode vividly illustrates the uncertain politics of this particular pandemic moment. While opinions about COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions have been politically polarized from almost the start – especially in the U.S. – lots of people are suddenly having a hard time figuring out what their own party line should be now, with vaccination widely available but still refused by some, the Delta variant surging and the threat of breakthrough infections even for the vaccinated.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s Conservative government is throwing things wide open, no longer even requiring isolation for those infected. Meanwhile, the federal Conservatives led by Erin O’Toole are running ads that argue it is unsafe to hold a federal election right now because the pandemic situation is so threatening.

In the U.S., there are similarly conflicting messages from Republican leaders, who have long tried to downplay the risks of the pandemic while opposing stay-at-home orders and mask requirements, and who have often appeared hesitant about vaccination. Plenty of them have responded to the wave of Delta variant infections by becoming strong advocates of vaccination. Rep. Steve Scalise finally got his shot, publicly, and recommended everyone do the same and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he regretted signing a law banning mask mandates.

Still, there is strong opposition among many Republicans to restrictions or mandates of any kind. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is still out there pushing her bill that would ban vaccination requirements, even by private businesses, and is now suing Congress over its requirement that she wear a mask.

Of course, the confused politics accompany what has been a confusing time in interpreting public health information. The still-arriving information on how much of a risk the Delta variant poses to the vaccinated – and how likely they are to catch and spread the illness – is disorienting, especially after a short period where a lot of vaccinated people thought this long, locked-down nightmare was finally over.

Alongside the wave of stories about unvaccinated people regretting their decisions from their hospital beds is a wave of stories about vaccinated people with breakthrough infections. In the Baltimore Sun, an epidemiologist wrote about attending a mask-free house party with 14 other fully vaccinated people, and then testing positive for COVID-19 – along with 10 others. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham spoke out last week about his own breakthrough infection.

There is a difference between those two kinds of stories, though. The ones about the unvaccinated tend to end with their subjects dying or on ventilators as their loved ones mourn. The ones about breakthrough infections in the fully vaccinated tend to end with them recovering after, as Graham put it, “feeling like crap” for a few days at home.

Indeed, whatever confusion currently exists about what exactly the recent Delta data means, what seems obvious is that it validates the claims that vaccination provides effective protection against the outcomes of COVID-19 that we’ve most feared. “I want to emphasize one fact that remains true, and that is that the vaccines are working against the Delta variant,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Thursday. “They are highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, and they’re also effective at reducing the overall risk of infection.”

Murthy cited a study showing mRNA vaccines remain 88 per cent effective against symptomatic COVID-19 infection.

There’s lots that still feels foggy about this pandemic moment, but what seems fairly clear is that vaccines are working, and that if anything, the Delta variant has made the case for getting them stronger, even if it also makes a case for employing other mitigation measures such as masks. Leaders casting about for how to react ought to calibrate their positions accordingly.

Edward Keenan is a National Affairs writer.