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There was little doubt that the pandemic would be a key topic of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. How exactly that would unfold at a time when both host cities, Milwaukee and Charlotte, were still dealing with their own local COVID dynamics was unclear: Milwaukee with a mask mandate in place and overall declining numbers of cases with a 4.8% positivity rate and Charlotte with a mask mandate as well and declining numbers but a slightly higher 6.2% positivity rate (both statistics are from the weeks prior to the planned start dates of each convention). Figure 1 is a snapshot of the United States’ current standing in the world with regard to COVID-19 cases illustrating the dramatic increase over the summer. As a result of the pandemic, the RNC had considered relocating their convention to Jacksonville, Fla., an idea which was scrapped as Florida’s COVID cases rose precipitously.
The two conventions had very different approaches to handling the risk of COVID-19 for attendees, which was reflected in the messages of their speeches. The RNC chose to have large physical presences in Charlotte, N.C. and in Washington DC, with hundreds of attendees less than six feet apart and with masks optional, conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say pose the highest risk of spreading infection. Variable degrees of testing and screening were done, with some attendees screened for COVID by third party company Patronus Medical. Of the 792 attendees and staff tested at the RNC in Charlotte, four were found to be positive thus far. But there was little to no enforcement of evidence-based mitigation measures such as avoiding physical contact among participants. with Vice President Mike Pence fist-bumping another attendee.
The DNC by contrast eliminated in-person attendance in Milwaukee and only the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, their spouses and a handful of press/staff were present at the speeches in Wilmington, Del., with masks and physical distancing guidelines in place. DNC staff reported any staff member, journalist or other individuals who would be near Joe Biden would undergo testing on two consecutive days.
The Republican messaging around COVID-19 reflected the convention’s lack of urgency around precautions, offering a much more upbeat appraisal of the administration’s handling of the pandemic and an optimistic perspective on the future. Both a nurse and physician were enlisted to praise Trump’s actions. Dr. G.E. Ghali, chancellor of LSU Health Shreveport, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 himself earlier in August, spoke about “how President Trump’s decisive leadership led to a rapid and efficient response to the coronavirus pandemic. I know this as a health professional, and as a COVID patient,” he said.
Other speakers issued grave warnings about the Democrats’ unwillingness to stand up to China on economic and political issues, which they equated to weakness against the “China Virus.” Trump held an in-person panel at the White House during the RNC with essential workers, who showered praise on the administration’s approach, with President Trump at one point responding to a California Sherriff’s story of contracting COVID-19 at a march with his own anecdote of taking hydroxychloroquine (which has been banned by the FDA for use in COVID outside of clinical trials), azithromycin and zinc.
Democrats highlighted essential workers with soccer champion Megan Rapinoe conducting a virtual panel with frontline health care workers who touched on the exhaustion of the workforce and the personal tolls of COVID on patients and clinicians alike along with themes of personal protective equipment shortages, testing issues and the lack of a national strategy. The final night of the DNC featured a speech by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy who reinforced messages of science over politics, stating that “our job is to speak the truth.”
Convention stages are generally not forums for detailed policy positions, but a way to motivate the base and reach new voters. Both conventions adhered to that tradition for the most part. The RNC convention featured images and words evoking the era before COVID-19 struck, of economic prosperity, job growth and an agenda to promote American innovation. Video clips featured unmasked people and when COVID was mentioned, it was with the commentary that President Trump would be uniquely qualified to restore America to its pre-COVID greatness because of his innovative approaches to testing and to providing protective equipment to health care workers.
The DNC showed people wearing masks and was marked by speeches about the needless deaths, the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has taken on tribal nations and racial and ethnic minority groups, and the message that scientists, not politicians, should lead the efforts to control a pandemic that has spiraled out of control under President Trump. When specifics were mentioned at the RNC, it was related to having a vaccine before the end of the year and better treatments, such as convalescent plasma, which received an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration right before the convention. Specifics at the DNC reinforced the link between President Trump’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and the link to COVID: “Now, it’s unthinkable that Donald Trump is trying to take that health care away. In the middle of a pandemic, he is still trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” a quote from a video featured during the Democratic Convention.
The two conventions obviously had different agendas around COVID-19. For Democrats, it was a chance to make the case that under a Democratic president the pandemic would have been controlled better, and a Biden-Harris administration will deal with it more successfully in the future. Republicans offered tributes to Trump’s “leadership” in restricting travel from China and Europe early in the pandemic and mobilizing private industry to produce tens of thousands of ventilators and to research vaccines. Vice President Pence underlined his party’s belief in miracles, while Biden emphasized Democrats’ commitment to empiricism and science, allowing experts to guide decisions about policies on masks, lockdown orders and other short and long-term measures. He also offered a message of unity, reminiscent of sentiments expressed by then-Senator Barack Obama at the 2004 DNC Convention.
President Trump repeated his promise that there will be a vaccine before the end of the year, eradicating the “China virus” in the nation. He repeated his frequent boasts about achievements such as:
America has tested more patients for COVID than all the countries in Europe or the rest of the Western Hemisphere. This is matter of debate since some public health researchers state that the amount of testing needs to be proportionate to the size of the pandemic and in the case of the United States in Figure 1, our testing may actually be behind the pace of the epidemic)
The United States has among the lowest case fatality rates (rate of deaths among those who have a confirmed COVID case) of any major country anywhere in the world, about a third of the rate in the European Union. This is also a contentious statistic, since case fatality rates are not good indicators during an unfolding pandemic, particularly when the actual number of cases might be higher than laboratory-confirmed cases due to lack of testing.
The fourth night of each convention concluded in grand fireworks, but with a notable difference; the Biden and Harris-Emhoff families with masks watching the spectacle without crowds and the Trump and Pence families in person, without masks, closer than 6 feet with a large crowd on the South Lawn of the White House.
Finally, almost all Americans have been touched by COVID-19 in some form, whether it be the closures of beloved neighborhood businesses or even more directly, either being infected or knowing someone who has contracted the virus. But because of restrictions on gatherings — including funerals, wakes and religious services — there has been little opportunity to grieve as a country. The DNC had many moments and speakers who acknowledged losses, including one of the most powerful moments of the convention, a speech by Kristin Urquiza, an Arizona woman whose father died of COVID-19. He was a healthy 65-year-old and “his only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life,” she said. First Lady Melania Trump began her speech at the RNC by expressing sympathy for the families of COVID-19 victims, marking the first time in the convention that victims were acknowledged.
It remains to be seen if the conventions dramatically changed voters’ minds about the candidates. But if before last week you were disinclined to wear a mask or take other precautions against contracting the coronavirus, you probably were bolstered in your beliefs by the message of the RNC. If you were trying to shelter at home, stay out of your workplace and keep your children out of school, the message offered by Democrats likely resonated with you. Either way, the two conventions offered very divergent views for a nation still struggling with a pandemic.
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