Washington – On Feb. 29, the state of Washington announced a death resulting from the new coronavirus, the first such case in the United States. In the time that has passed since then, the virus has spread to every state in the union and has infected over 160,000 patients, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths. On March 13, a national state of emergency was declared, numerous stores and restaurants were closed, and some governors and mayors have invoked “lockdown” orders, calling on residents to stay at home to minimize the risk of further spreading the virus.
In early March, when Americans were asked, “How concerned are you about a coronavirus outbreak in your local area?” more than 40 percent of Republicans replied that they were “not concerned at all,” whereas fewer than 5 percent of Democrats agreed. But by March 21, the Republican response showed a sharp drop to 18 percent, and the Democratic response fell to 2 percent. The 35 percent gap in early March between Republicans and Democrats reflects the partisan divide that separates the two parties. But the sharp decline in Republican responses over a three-week period from 40 percent to 18 percent, shrinking the gap from 35 percent to 16 percent, may indicate that the two sides are headed toward a common understanding of the crisis.
Why has there been such a gap in threat perception between Republicans and Democrats? The first reason is that leaders were communicating conflicting messages to the public. Although U.S. intelligence agencies had briefed U.S. President Trump in early January about the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and the potential it had for a pandemic spreading globally, it took more than a month for him to take the issue seriously enough to come to the conclusion that declaring a national emergency was warranted. As late as Feb. 27, Trump declared, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be close to zero.”
Around the same time, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that “as the next week or two or three go by, we’re going to see a lot more community-related cases.” And soon thereafter, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, among others, ordered lockdowns of their states, urging nonessential businesses to close and residents to stay home.
The second reason is the bifurcation of news sources. Studies have shown that Fox News, a favorite of Republican television viewers, and MSNBC, seen by many Democrats, have depicted the coronavirus in starkly different terms, some in the conservative camp even going so far as to accuse Democrats of exaggerating the coronavirus outbreak to damage the president’s re-election bid in November.
And many Republican social media users rely primarily on conservative news sources, just as many Democratic social media users rely primarily on progressive news sources, sometimes creating alternative, almost unrecognizable, universes.
The third reason is the politics of geography. The densely populated areas on the East and West coasts (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle) and the urban centers in mid-America (Chicago) are the places with the most number of infected cases. These are also places where Democrats are strong, whereas the Midwest and South, where the number of cases are fewer, are Republican strongholds.
Thus the sense of crisis about the coronavirus may be weaker among Republicans partly because they tend to live in regions that so far have been less affected by the outbreak than the large urban centers.
Although the perception of threat from the coronavirus may be converging between Republicans and Democrats, the perception of how the Trump administration is dealing with the crisis stills splits down party lines.
In early March, when Americans were asked, “How satisfied are you with the U.S. government’s current response to the coronavirus outbreak?” 50 percent of Republicans answered “Completely satisfied,” and only 4 percent answered “Not satisfied at all.”
Of the Democratic respondents, 61 percent answered “Not satisfied at all,” and only 3 percent answered “Completely satisfied.” By March 21, 64 percent of Democrats answered “Not satisfied at all,” and only 2 percent responded, “Completely satisfied.” Of the Republican respondents, 46 percent answered “Completely satisfied” and 5 percent answered “Not satisfied at all.”
So although the threat perception among Republicans has grown, the partisan divide still persists when it comes to evaluating the Trump administration’s performance in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Despite this divide, it is encouraging that, after considerable partisan rancor, the Senate was able to pass on March 25 the $2 trillion legislation to mitigate the economic damage caused by the coronavirus.
Perhaps it shows that when it comes to a tangible, physical crisis — as opposed to an intangible, political crisis — facts can trump partisanship.
Until recently it appeared that the next battle would be over Trump’s stated desire, expressed on March 24, to open the country by Easter, April 12: “I thought it was a beautiful time. A beautiful timeline,” the president said.
Public health officials, however, condemned this as much too early a deadline and potentially disastrous from the standpoint of conquering the coronavirus. On Sunday the president reversed his stance.
The U.S. is now the epicenter of the global pandemic, having shifted over the past month from China and Italy. Although administration officials have used labels such as “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” in their attempt to attach blame to China as the source of the pandemic, the domestic partisan divide and lack of unified American response globally means that China may ultimately gain in stature because it has had a clear strategy both for conquering the crisis domestically and for providing assistance to other countries to do the same.
One hopes that on the global, as well as domestic, level the U.S. will be able to overcome the partisan divide and provide leadership based on science, evidence, transparency, and truth.
Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at a Washington think tank. He served as deputy assistant United States trade representative for Japan and China, and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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