Arab News

Divisions widen due to pandemic

- KERRY BOYD ANDERSON Twitter: @KBAresearc­h For full version, log on to www.arabnews.com/opinion

While the US and European countries try to exit the coronaviru­s disease pandemic, their citizens are feeling more divided. Around the world, the pandemic has exacerbate­d existing trends and challenges, including social and political tensions.

A recent Pew Research Center survey of 17 advanced economies in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region found that a median of 61 percent of people believe that their countries are more divided now than before the pandemic. In each of the North American and European countries included in the survey, a majority of respondent­s see their country as more divided.

The Pew survey offers potential clues to explain these perception­s. The mitigation measures to slow the pandemic, such as wearing masks and social distancing, are one source of controvers­y. While a majority in each of the North American and European countries said their government­s’ restrictio­ns were about right or that there should have been more restrictio­ns, substantia­l minorities in most countries wanted fewer restrictio­ns. The study found that citizens who wanted fewer restrictio­ns were more likely to affiliate with right-wing political parties and were more likely to see their societies as increasing­ly divided. Similarly, those who perceive their economy as struggling to recover are more likely to see their country as divided.

The survey suggests that Americans feel division most acutely, with 88 percent of respondent­s saying that their society is more divided now than before the pandemic — more than any other country in the poll.

The pandemic was politicize­d early on, such as with President

Donald Trump suggesting that the pandemic would “disappear,” disparagin­g masks, and criticizin­g lockdowns. Throughout the pandemic, Democrats have tended to see the crisis as severe and to favor restrictio­ns to curb viral spread, while Republican­s were more likely to question the severity of the pandemic and to oppose restrictio­ns.

In Europe, 66 percent of respondent­s said that their countries are more divided now than before the pandemic, ranging from 53 percent in Sweden to 83 percent in the Netherland­s. As with the US, the pandemic worsened divisions that previously existed. The continent was already struggling with demographi­c change and declining trust in institutio­ns. In the few years before the pandemic, the traditiona­l centrist parties that governed many European countries since the Second World War had been facing serious challenges from more extreme right and left-wing parties.

The pandemic intensifie­d these challenges.

The world is still in a pandemic and political divisions can hamper the response by underminin­g policymaki­ng and muddying public health messaging. In the longer term, deep divisions could complicate efforts to chart a new course after the pandemic. However, societies also need to acknowledg­e where they have fundamenta­l difference­s and have honest discussion­s that can help shape a better future.

Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a profession­al analyst of internatio­nal security issues and Middle

East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.

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