The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic threatens to deepen the divisions within many countries around the world. The crisis poses particular risks for those nations that already had intensifying fault lines around political polarization, racial and ethnic identities, religious affiliations, and other sociopolitical rifts.
In some countries where politicians exacerbated divisions before the pandemic, those leaders have maintained the same approach. In Brazil, for example, President Jair Bolsonaro has doubled down on his attacks on the mainstream media and institutions and his efforts to present himself as a strongman leader. His response to the virus has included belittling its effects, opposing social distancing, and attacking state and city leaders who have tried to limit the spread of the virus. In the US, partisan political identities have played a major role in shaping Americans’ views of the virus and mitigation measures. While there were some initial bipartisan efforts in Congress, much of the national-level policymaking is now breaking down along partisan lines.
In some other cases, leaders who had intentionally engaged in divisive rhetoric and actions before the pandemic have attempted to call for unity in the face of COVID-19 — but have found it difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. This is particularly true for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when faced with the virus, Modi “toned down his populist and confrontational rhetoric,” but “fears surrounding the pandemic have rapidly amplified societal polarization and intolerance, in particular against India’s Muslims.”
In multiple countries, the pandemic has fanned the flames of already-rising xenophobia. There are examples of Americans harassing people who look Chinese and examples of Chinese harassing Westerners and Africans — all based on the idea that the targeted groups are vectors of disease. In countries such as India and Sri Lanka, the virus has inflamed Islamophobic sentiments. In many places, immigrants have been the targets.
Deep divisions and intensifying polarization present a number of challenges when responding to a historic pandemic. First, it undermines good governance and policymaking. When political parties and leaders cannot agree on public health or economic stimulus measures, it stymies a government’s ability to respond. Another problem that is occurring in several countries is disagreement between national leaders and state or municipal leaders over how to manage the crisis. In countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and the US, political rivalries between the country’s president or prime minister and state and city leaders have hampered policy responses and sent mixed messages to the public. In some cases, political leaders ignore information from public health experts when it runs contrary to their own worldview or might threaten their power and reputation.
Second, deep divisions in a society undermine the ability of leaders to communicate a clear message, diminish the extent to which the public trusts information from the government or media, and limit compliance with important public health measures. Political polarization and other divisions make it difficult for the public to trust messages, information, and regulations from leaders or media that they perceive as belonging to the “other side.” This is particularly true in countries where leaders have embraced a populist narrative, which often portrays governing institutions and “elites” — including scientists and public health experts — as untrustworthy.
Governments operating in divided environments, where the public at large or specific segments of the population lack trust, will find it difficult to convince people to follow public health measures such as business closures and social distancing. Similarly, governments that want people to return to economic activity may find it difficult to persuade the public that it is safe to do so. Eventually, implementing a vaccine program in an environment where there is a lack of trust will have its own challenges. When people receive mixed messages from different government leaders or from a media landscape that is segmented according to political identity, it is particularly difficult to provide the public with sound information and to ensure compliance with measures designed to limit the spread of the virus or to restart the economy.
In multiple countries, the pandemic has fanned the flames of already-rising xenophobia.
Not all countries are experiencing a pandemic layered on top of deepening divisions. Some states, such as New Zealand and Canada, have been able to draw on a sense of national unity and trust in governing institutions to mount an effective response to the pandemic. In some other countries, such as the UK, political leaders have worked to bridge political and social gaps in response to the pandemic.
For leaders who want to genuinely help heal divided societies, the pandemic is a time for politicians to ensure that assistance is provided more equitably to all social groups, rather than giving more to their own identity group or political base. It offers a time for leaders to demonstrate empathy for different parts of society and to bring people together. Such efforts must be more than bland statements calling for unity (which often read as calling on people to blindly support the ruling party) and instead must include practical measures. Meanwhile, even in the most divided countries, many individuals demonstrate kindness and generosity across social divides to help others — they might be the seeds of grassroots movements to promote societal healing in the long term.