May 6, 2020 - Health

Why the coronavirus tears us apart

Illustration of a man in profile wearing a mask over his mouth while his double wears one covering his eyes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Far from being the unifying force other catastrophes have been, the COVID-19 pandemic is tearing a divided America — and world — further apart.

Why it matters: Thanks to preexisting political and economic divisions and tech and media bubbles that allow us to choose our own reality, we're not experiencing the same pandemic. That bodes ill for our ability to overcome this global disaster, and the ones that will follow.

Driving the news: On Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a video urging the nation to come together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, saying "Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat." It was a sentiment increasingly at odds with the reality of the public reaction to COVID-19.

  • In an Axios-Ipsos poll released yesterday, most Americans surveyed reported they doubted one of the most fundamental facts of the pandemic: the death toll. But whether they believed the reported deaths were too low or too high depended on whether they were Democrats or Republicans.
  • A Pew survey published today found two-thirds of Republican-leaning respondents believe the media is at least slightly exaggerating the risks from COVID-19, compared to 3 in 10 Democratic-leaning respondents.
  • U.S. states are divided in their response, with Republican governors in the South and Midwest pushing to reopen as quickly as possible, while Democratic governors in the Northeast formed a separate consortium to source needed personal protective equipment.

Context: COVID-19 isn't being experienced the same way around the world or around the U.S.

  • While every U.S. state has had outbreaks and in recent weeks counts have been rising outside major cities, a handful of states are still responsible for the bulk of COVID-19 cases so far, with New York City alone making up more than 14% of confirmed U.S. case and more than a quarter of confirmed deaths.
  • That uneven epidemiological experience contrasts with the economic toll of the pandemic and social distancing, which truly has been national.
  • Even within hard-hit cities, the experience often breaks down along lines of race and class. A USA Today analysis found that the poorest neighborhoods had COVID-19 infection rates twice as high as the wealthiest ZIP codes, while infection rates were five times higher in majority-minority ZIP codes than in those that were less than 10% nonwhite.

The unique nature of the pandemic also makes its toll largely invisible and easier for the motivated to dismiss — or pervert.

  • While disasters from 9/11 to the war in Iraq had their signature images, patient privacy laws and concerns about putting reporters in harm's way have ensured that the story of COVID-19 has largely been told secondhand, through the anguished observations of health care workers and the occasional clandestine cellphone video.
  • White supremacists have capitalized on the coronavirus to push their message of hate online and off, claiming that social distancing measures are the early stages of the totalitarian state they've long predicted.

What's next: Nothing good.

  • As anger on both sides of the coronavirus divide continues to grow, violence like the killing of a store security guard in Michigan over a mask dispute last Friday could worsen.
  • On the international stage, disputes over how to respond to the pandemic, how to create a vaccine and even how the outbreak began will further fracture the world. A global pandemic — and what looks to be a global depression — demands a global response, but the world seems incapable of delivering one.
  • If the U.S. and the world can't muster anything like a unified response to the clear and present danger of an infectious disease pandemic, how will we manage a long-term global threat like climate change or the wrenching economic transformation from automation?

My thought bubble: Over the weekend, my former boss Nancy Gibbs wrote in the Washington Post that the true coronavirus test we face won't involve nasal swabs or thermometers, but our character, whether we're able to balance self-interest and the public interest. Americans did well enough initially, but as COVID-19 weeks turn to months, the pressure could become unbearable.

The bottom line: COVID-19 provides us with a common enemy: a 120 nm band of genes wrapped in a lipid shell. Yet, increasingly, the enemy seems to be each other.

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