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Here’s the already iconic image of a divided America in the middle of a pandemic. In one of a smattering of protests over the weekend against coronavirus lockdowns, a supporter of President Trump in Denver jeered at a counterprotesting medical worker from a silver Ram truck. “This is a free country,” she said, before telling the medical worker to “go to China.”

Trump later defended these scenes, arguing that the protesters — some of whom were mobilized by far-right, pro-gun groups on Facebook and assembled near city halls or other public buildings in mostly small numbers over the past few days — were agitating against governors who “have gone too far” in their imposition of restrictions on daily life. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans fear that the government is moving too quickly to lift restrictions. But Trump may pull at this seam in the coming weeks, hoping to focus his base’s ire on domestic opponents even as he finds it impossible to dispel the scrutiny of his own missteps in the early stages of the crisis.

People wearing scrubs stood in front of vehicles filled with protesters campaigning against Colorado's stay-at-home order on April 19. (Marc Zenn via Storyful)

Still, the economic anxiety in the United States, as is the case elsewhere in the world, is all too real. New projections from Columbia University researchers suggest that a coronavirus-provoked recession could spike U.S. job losses — and poverty — to five-decade highs. Far from U.S. state capitals, protests are building against lockdowns in poorer countries. About 2 billion people around the world depend on day work and live in countries whose governments are mostly unable to compensate for their loss of wages.

“If people don’t work, they don’t get paid, and there is a risk of hunger,” Cátia Batista, professor of economics at Lisbon’s Nova University, told my colleagues. “The natural response is unrest.”

But critics and experts argue that Trump and his supporters’ desire to open up the U.S. economy is premature. The country may be in the beginning of a long “plateau” in its battle with the virus — registering about 2,000 deaths a day for the past week — but still lags behind in testing a necessary proportion of its population. Countries such as Germany and South Korea moved to ease restrictions this week, but they have established far more efficient and widespread regimes of contact tracing and testing for the virus.

Even then, they remain wary about the possibility of a second wave ravaging their countries. “We must not be careless or irresponsible, even for a moment,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday, as small retailers in some German states began reopening. In contrast to Trump, Merkel urged local authorities to maintain and enforce social distancing rules to ensure that the country’s slowdown in infections would continue.

In South Korea, some restaurants and shopping malls have restarted business, while various offices are slowly encouraging their employees to return — though with new precautions, including distancing measures and temperature checks. The country’s authorities, who have been singled out for their proactive handling of the outbreak, remain concerned about the possibility of new flare-ups. “We’re looking at the trend of group infections though it has mostly been small clusters over the past two weeks,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters. “If we let our guard down in social distancing, [the virus] could come back and greatly hurt and endanger our society.”

Austria was one of the first European countries to begin restarting its economy, but it did so from a position of relative safety and strength. “Apart from the early lockdown, a rigorous mobile testing and health monitoring program caught cases early and kept people at home,” noted Denise Hruby in Foreign Policy. “Just 10 percent of cases have ended up hospitalized, such a low rate that three-quarters of the country’s intensive care unit beds remain vacant and patients from Italy and France have been taken to Austria for treatment.”

Such conditions don’t exist yet in the United States. And none of the indignation of Trump supporters over their apparent loss of rights during a global public health crisis can be heard in the messaging from authorities in countries that are slowly trying to restart their economies.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, perhaps the world leader most feted in her management of the crisis, cautioned Monday against moves that would risk “any of the gains we have made.”

“As is the case in other parts of Europe, Germany’s partial reopening comes amid warnings from officials that a full return to normality is still far off,” wrote my colleague Rick Noack. “Last week, Spain allowed some workers to resume operations, even though it extended the restrictions that have kept citizens locked inside their homes for weeks. And while Austria reopened many shops, it also tightened rules on the use of face masks in public settings.”

Even in Sweden, whose government’s unwillingness to impose strict lockdowns has been hailed by some U.S. conservatives, authorities insist they aren’t exactly keeping their heads in the sand. “We don’t have a radically different view,” Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in an interview with Radio Sweden. “The government has made a series of decisions that affect the whole society. It’s a myth that life goes on as normal in Sweden.”

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