Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wealthy nations applaud their leaders’ covid-19 responses. The U.S. and U.K. are the exceptions.

Staging on the South Lawn of the White House ahead of the third night of the Republican National Convention in Washington on Aug. 26. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

A poll of 14 developed nations found majorities in most countries were pleased with how their governments had handled the coronavirus pandemic. More than 9 out of 10 respondents in Australia and Denmark said their countries have done a good job.

But there were two countries where a majority thought otherwise: the United States and Britain.

In the United States, 52 percent said they thought their government had done poorly, and 54 percent in Britain said the same.

Among U.S. respondents, 77 percent, a far higher share than in the other countries surveyed, said the pandemic had heightened political divisions. Spain came in next, at 59 percent.

High levels of division are unexpected during a crisis and could affect the fight against the novel virus, experts say.

“Typically, a tragic event like this would have the ‘rally around the flag’ effect and increase social cohesiveness,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In five wealthy countries, a majority of respondents said that the country had become less divided since the pandemic hit. Just 25 percent of Danes said their country was more divided due to the pandemic, the poll found, while 72 percent said it was more united.

An equal number of respondents in Britain said their country was more and less divided.

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Pew said it gathered the data using nationally representative surveys of 14,276 adults from June 10 through Aug. 3, with all interviews conducted by phone. The margin of error ranged from 3.1 percentage points in South Korea to 4.2 in Belgium.

Some governments have placed heavy importance on national unity during the pandemic. In Denmark, officials have often used the word “samfundssind,” which roughly translates as the act of putting the community’s needs above one’s own, to emphasize the need for social distancing.

According to a study by Danish researcher Marianne Rathje, use of the old-fashioned word soared after Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen used it during a news conference March 11.

Trine Mogensen, a professor of immunology at Aarhus University Hospital, said that in part because of the history of political cooperation in Denmark, where political parties often rule in coalitions, there had been relatively little political disagreement over the country’s covid-19 response.

The country had been able to keep the virus under control through “voluntary good behavior and keeping to the rules and very little being reinforced by law,” Mogensen said. Nearly three-quarters of Danes said that their life changed little during the pandemic, and the country has confirmed just 623 deaths from covid-19.

Many world leaders have seen their approval ratings rise during the pandemic. Australia’s Scott Morrison, languishing in polls at the start of the year, saw his approval ratings soar during the early stages of the virus’s spread, and they have stayed high since. The country has recorded 572 covid-19 deaths.

Ian Mackay, an epidemiologist at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre at the University of Queensland, said that Australians were generally happy with the government’s action, but aware that geography played a role.

“Most Australians seem to understand that we are very lucky to live on an island, but we are also aware that early science-based actions at our borders saved the country from the sort of epidemic of disease and subsequent death we’ve watched unfold in so many other places,” he said.

Approval ratings have dropped for leaders seen to have handled the virus poorly. Approval ratings for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cratered in late spring after a series of government setbacks and scandals. Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told The Washington Post in June that there had been a “massive drop in public trust.” More than 40,000 have died from the virus in Britain.

In the United States, where more than 175,000 have died from the virus and, President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has received consistently negative ratings in polls. In the upcoming presidential election, the pandemic response has become a central, partisan issue.

According to Pew survey data, more than three-quarters of Republicans and Independents who lean to the Republican Party say the government has done a good job during the pandemic, while only a quarter of Democrats and those who lean Democratic agree.

That 51 percent partisan gap is far larger than that of any other nation surveyed.

Huang said that in general, political cohesion was important for fighting the coronavirus and that countries with a more unified approach such as China or South Korea had seen success fighting large outbreaks.

“Federalism can complicate a coherent response because the decentralized structure tends to pit state and local governments against the federal governments in decision-making and policy implementation,” he said, adding that the “finger-pointing between Democratic governors and the Trump administration” had compounded the problem in the United States.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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