The virus and America's divisions

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The virus and America's divisions

A country that's turned out more Nobel laureates than any other, led development of the first polio vaccine and, yes, put a man on the moon is now a coronavirus superpower. The U.S. is home to the highest number of Covid-19 cases—2.6 million and counting—and most deaths, at more than 127,000.

The floundering U.S. response has caused a heat blast of criticism directed at the Trump administration. Yet the pandemic also casts an unflattering light on deeper American maladies—politicized science, information bubbles and inequality—decades in the making that have made the country especially vulnerable.

Ordinary Americans aren't laggards when it comes to basic scientific knowledge, with U.S. high-school students scoring above the average of counterparts in other advanced industrial nations, according to the latest Program for International Student Assessment, a survey of academic achievement internationally. A majority of Americans have confidence in the expertise of U.S. scientists, according to a Pew Research study last year.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, left, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI

However, party affiliation does matter when it comes to science and public policy debates. Some 73% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents think scientists should inform science policy making, while only 43% of Republicans and those leaning toward the GOP do, the Pew data show.

The pandemic is far from the first time science has been politicized in the U.S. Over the years, debates have raged over the veracity of evidence-based claims about the risks from cigarettes, climate change and vaccines. Last year, Congress approved spending for scientific research into gun violence, more than 20 years after lawmakers passed a law barring federal funding for such studies.

As Americans gather for picnics, barbecues and beach-side parties this Independence Day weekend, the destructive force of the pandemic will loom in the background regardless of their opinion on what it all means. Yet as the data show to an alarming degree, a divided America is an ideal environment for an opportunistic virus.—Brian Bremner

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