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America's two pandemics

America's two pandemics

This week, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States will surpass 100,000. Opinion polls show that right- and left-leaning voters in the United States have very different opinions on what that number means and what to do about it.

There's sharp disagreement, in particular, on where the true danger in the current crisis now lies. A recent survey found that 78% of Democrats, anxious to contain the spread of the virus, favor stay-at-home orders. Just 45% of Republicans, many of whom worry more over the economic damage that lockdowns inflict, agreed. About three-quarters of Democrats said they worry that lifting the lockdown will trigger a new wave of infection. Just a third of Republicans shared that fear.


Why do Americans view the issue so differently?

It's partly an age-old ideological divide. Voters on the right argue that the law exists to protect individual rights and freedoms against the encroachments of a power-hungry and/or incompetent government. Voters on the left insist that government has a responsibility to ensure public health and safety, even if that means placing limits on individual freedom. They also argue that the economy won't recover until the virus has been contained.

Media widen that divide. Americans tend to get their news from the TV channels, newspapers, and websites that correspond to their political values, and these media produce sharply different sets of information about the world. Social media amplify this effect by separating consumers into ideologically homogenous communities.

The Two Pandemics

But there's another important factor that explains the divergent views of COVID-19: The virus is hitting red (right-leaning) America and blue (left-leaning) America in very different ways.

Analysis from the New York Times finds that "counties won by President Trump in 2016 have reported just 27 percent of the virus infections and 21 percent of the deaths [in the United States] — even though 45 percent of Americans live in these communities." This is partly to do with population density, since urban areas, more immediately at risk from the quick spread of infectious disease, lean further left than do rural areas.

The economic impact, meanwhile, has so far skewed the other way. Other research shows that in states Trump won in 2016, 23 people have lost a job for every 1 person infected. In states that Democrat Hillary Clinton won, just 13 people have lost a job for every person infected.

No wonder then that red America worries more over the impact of job losses and bankrupt business while blue America is still relatively more concerned about the spread of the disease itself.

This may be changing. As COVID kills fewer people in New York City and other hard-hit urban areas where Democrats dominate, business closures and unemployment will become larger political issues, particularly as income inequality, already a hot political issue, widens. At the same time, the virus is now infecting and killing people in rural counties, where Republicans tend to dominate, at some of the highest rates in the United States. People in these areas live further apart, but many work in close quarters in plants and factories—and reluctance to take safety precautions early on in this crisis may finally be catching up with them.

In short, as epidemiological and economic concerns converge, Americans of left and right may have much more in common than they think.

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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The Democrats shocked the country by eking out a 50-50 majority in the US Senate earlier this month, securing control of the House, Senate and Executive. But do they have enough power to impose the kinds of restrictions to Big Tech that many believe are sorely needed? Renowned tech columnist Kara Swisher is not so sure. But there is one easy legislative win they could pursue early on. "I think it's very important to have privacy legislation, which we currently do not have: a 'national privacy bill.' Every other country does." Swisher's wide-ranging conversation with Ian Bremmer was part of the latest episode of GZERO World.

Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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