Divisions widen due to pandemic
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.