On symbols and scripts: The politics of the American COVID-19 response

Nora Kenworthy, Adam D. Koon, Emily Mendenhall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The COVID-19 crisis emerged during a divisive time in American politics. We argue that to unravel the American COVID-19 crisis—and to craft effective responses—we need a more sophisticated understanding of the political culture of public health crises. We use data from interviews and online media to examine symbolic representation of public health phenomena (masks; public health institutions) within the first months of the US epidemic. We show how political scripts about pandemic responses are shaped by, and align with, deeply-rooted social values and political cultures. Social processes of meaning-making help explain the evolution of increasingly partisan public health discourse regarding topics like masking and institutional trust. We highlight the lack of memorialization of deaths in America—that has not acquired the same polarized political meaning as other issues—to consider how and why certain issues gain political valence, and what opportunities certain acts of politicization provide in shifting public discourse. The coronavirus pandemic challenged the science of public health strategy, and the legitimacy of its institutions, with devastating consequences. Anticipating and understanding the central role of political cultures, cultural scripts, and meanings in positioning public health measures is essential for more effective responses to COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1424-1438
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal public health
Issue number8-9
StatePublished - 2021


  • CDC
  • COVID-19
  • Symbols
  • WHO
  • cultural scripts
  • masks
  • memorialisation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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