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.
  • The extremists represent just one part of a worsening coronavirus "infodemic," an infection of the body politic that health experts are failing to beat. With so much about COVID-19 still unclear, everyone — from anti-vaxxers to anti-Semites — is rushing to fill a vacuum of uncertainty online.

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.

Go deeper

Aug 12, 2020 - Health

The two sides of America's coronavirus response

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

America's bungled political and social response to the coronavirus exists side-by-side with a record-breaking push to create a vaccine with U.S. companies and scientists at the center.

Why it matters: America's two-sided response serves as an X-ray of the country itself — still capable of world-beating feats at the high end, but increasingly struggling with what should be the simple business of governing itself.

Updated 13 hours ago - Health

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

New Zealand confirmed Thursday there are 13 local cases linked to the four who tested positive for COVID-19, ending 102 days of no community spread. Auckland locked down Wednesday for 72 hours and the rest of NZ is under lesser restrictions.

By the numbers: Over 751,000 people have died of the novel coronavirus globally and another 20.7 million have tested positive, per Johns Hopkins. More than 12.8 million have recovered from the virus.

Aug 13, 2020 - Health

U.S. records deadliest coronavirus day of the summer

Healthcare workers handling coronavirus tests in Los Angeles on August 11. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The U.S. reported 1,485 deaths due to the coronavirus on Wednesday, COVID Tracking Project data shows.

Why it matters: It's the highest single-day COVID-19 death toll since May 15, when the country reported 1,507 deaths. The U.S. has seen a total of 157,758 deaths from the virus.