New research conducted at Kent State University investigated the role political affiliation may play in stigmatizing those with COVID-19. The findings indicate that those identifying as Democrats and Independents were more likely to stigmatize those with COVID-19 due to greater COVID-19 anxiety and fewer conspiracy beliefs than Republicans. In addition, Democrats, Independents, and liberal-leaning individuals were more likely to believe COVID-19 patients deserved assistance, either public or private.
The research appears in The Journal of Social Psychology.
Over the pandemic years, it became apparent that not all individuals receive and understand public health messaging similarly. Conflicting perspectives around the severity of the pandemic, the public health measures to take, and the vaccine’s safety were centered around political parties. Understanding how those identifying as Republican or conservative-leaning, Democrat or liberal-leaning, and Independents differ in their attitudes toward COVID-19 may provide public health officials tools they can use to formulate messaging that will be convincing to most Americans.
The study included 710 adults between the ages of 18 and 65. Of these, 240 identified as Republican, 273 as Democrat, and 197 as Independent. Participants came from all across the country; 49% of the group was female, and 79% were white. Participants answered questions about what political party they affiliated with and rated themselves from extremely liberal to extremely conservative.
They then took a measure of COVID-19 anxiety, which was an altered version of the 1998 Multidimensional AIDS Anxiety Questionnaire. In addition, their COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs were measured, as were their feelings related to the COVID-19 stigma. These included negative emotions, blame and responsibility, public assistance, and personal assistance.
The results revealed that Democrats and Independents had more COVID-19 anxiety and fewer conspiracy beliefs than Republicans. Conservative-leaning individuals and Republicans expressed the opposite, with less COVID-19 anxiety and more conspiracy-related beliefs. Those with high COVID-19 anxiety reported more negative emotions related to COVID-19 and greater feelings of blame and responsibility around COVID-19 infection. Democrats and Independents were more likely to report that public and private assistance should be available to those with COVID-19.
These findings may explain COVID-19 behavior patterns. The research team hypothesizes that Democrats and Independents more often stigmatize those with COVID-19 and consequently try to avoid the stigma by following suggested public health protocols. Republicans are less likely to stigmatize and therefore feel less concerned about public health measures, in addition to conspiracy beliefs that downplay the severity of COVID-19.
“These drastic differences between political parties and health safety protocols have been echoed by the emerging differences in COVID-19 death rates by partisan groups amid the vaccine rollout,” the research team wrote. Since the vaccine has been available, research has demonstrated the consequences of these differing attitudes toward COVID-19 and vaccine safety. For example, counties with a majority of Republican voters have higher death rates than counties with a majority of Democratic voters. In order to bring down high death rates for Republicans, public health officials may need to understand the attitudes and perspectives of Republican and conservative-leaning voters.
The authors of the study explain it this way, “By providing further evidence on the underlying mechanisms of how COVID-19 stigma operates, we can work backward to create public health messages tailored to different political parties. Specifically, health messages that are framed in ways of public and personal safety may be more effective toward Democrats, Independents, and liberal-leaning individuals, whereas health messages framed in a way that dispels conspiracy beliefs or clearly explains the importance of healthy behavior on the economy may be more effective toward Republican and conservative-learning individuals.”
The study, “Democrats and independents stigmatize people with COVID-19 greater compared to Republicans”, was authored by Chelsea Monheim and Mary Himmelstein.