But for many of the world’s wealthiest countries, arguably those best equipped to handle the pandemic and attendant economic challenges, covid-19 has not only failed to foster national unity but has instead sowed new divisions, according to survey results released Wednesday.
In the United States, which has seen bitter debates and even violent clashes over mask mandates, lockdowns and vaccines, 88 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey of 17 advanced economies said they saw the country as more divided now than before the pandemic — the highest percentage among the countries surveyed.
In all nine European nations included, majorities reported feeling more division this year than before the coronavirus outbreak. The Netherlands ranked the highest, with 83 percent citing increased division, and Sweden ranked the lowest, with 53 percent.
Some nations in Asia and the Pacific, however, did see an increase in unity amid the pandemic: New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and Singapore.
All four have receive praise for robust responses to the pandemic and were able to reopen or remain open in advance of vaccine rollouts.
South Korea and Japan diverged from the seeming regional trend. In both countries, around 60 percent of respondents found heightened division following the outbreak.
“It’s generally true that when a crisis hits a country, whatever divisions that were there before usually become more extreme,” Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol told The Washington Post. In the event of “an economic crisis, or in this case a health crisis, it’s not surprising that fault lines that were already there become more prominent.”
In the United States, Skocpol said, another driver of division was the uneven spread of the virus — which hit Democratic strongholds first before gradually spreading to areas with Republican voting bases. In the crucial early stages of the pandemic — “when the tone is set as to whether we are all in together or we’re not” — President Donald Trump increased divisions by leaning in the responses of individual governors and blaming certain areas of the country, she said.
Perceptions of national division are increasing as the pandemic drags on. In the summer of 2020, only 53 percent of respondents in the Netherlands reported increased division, but this spring 83 percent did. In Canada, 29 percent reported increased division, but the number has risen to more than 60 percent.
Several factors seem to contribute to perceptions of division, including how favorably people view their nation’s pandemic response.
In Asia and the Pacific, a median of 63 percent felt that restrictions were about right. In Western Europe, that percentage was lower at 40 percent — with 37 percent wanting more restrictions.
Only 17 percent of U.S. respondents said restriction levels were about right — with 56 percent saying they wanted more restrictions.
Though Asia and the Pacific stands out in the survey, South Korea and Japan are exceptions on several fronts, including increased division and dissatisfaction with covid restriction levels. Both nations, though, have seen forceful second waves of the coronavirus after being initially heralded as models for their pandemic responses.
John P. DiMoia, a professor of Korean history at Seoul National University, said that while strong initial faith peaked a few months into the pandemic, belief in the government’s response is eroding — as it is around the world as the pandemic rages on.
“I don’t know that I would say personally that there is more social division than I’d say people have learned how to use the pandemic to map onto existing political differences, which were already pretty strong,” DiMoia said.
Economic concerns correlate with perceptions of division in many countries. Additionally, those who believe there should have been fewer restrictions are more likely to feel a higher sense of division.
Around the world, wealthy countries held one thing in common: Views of national covid responses have slipped over time. Of all nations surveyed, Britain was the only country for which this was not the case.
In some cases, the slippage was massive. In Japan, Canada and the Netherlands, positive views of the handling of the pandemic dropped over 20 percentage points. For Germany, though 88 percent of respondents approved of their country’s pandemic response in 2020, only 51 percent still hold the opinion.
Despite increasing national division, some are holding out hope for a moment of global unity. In calling for an international pandemic treaty in March, dozens of heads of government and international agencies, including the WHO, made reference to the forging of a multilateral system following the “devastation of two world wars.” They wrote that they now “hold the same hope” to build a more robust international health architecture and to build mutual accountability and shared responsibility.