New insights into US attitudes to COVID-19

The phrase ‘only in America’ is one which is deep in possible meanings. In particular it lays itself open to the deconstruction demonstrated in the old Jewish joke about Stalin and Trotsky.

In the joke Stalin is standing on the Lenin mausoleum and announces that he has just received a telegram from Trotsky. He reads it out: “Stalin. You were right and I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin. I should apologise. Trotsky”

A Jewish comrade approaches Stalin and says: “Such a message. But you have read it without the right feeling.” Stalin is delighted by this worker’s concern and asks him to read out the telegram again. He does: “Comrade Stalin. You were right and I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin? I should apologise? Trotsky.”

While the ironic sense of only in America is now around in the US it is far more common in the rest of the world – particularly when people fall to discussing the Trump presidency; COVID-19 and the US’s muddled response to the pandemic; and, its current unenviable status as the country with the highest coronavirus death toll.

George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) has, as a centrepiece of its rich ongoing research into US attitudes to climate change, the capacity to produce statistically valid analyses of public policy issues. In response to the coronavirus epidemic in the US it conducted a large national study on American responses to the virus “in an effort to inform the public health community and policymakers about Americans’ coronavirus knowledge, attitudes, vulnerabilities, protective behaviours, and communication needs.”

The public attitudes are in line with some US Governors and politicians if not with Trump. Indeed, the public’s priorities are dramatically different from those of the White House – if the Trump White House can be said to have anything other than the gratification of Trump’s narcissism as a consistent priority.

This, it should be stressed, is not a conclusion of the 4Csurvey but merely what the survey results suggest to the reader. Anyway the survey shows that “By a margin of more than 5-to-1, Americans say stopping the spread of the coronavirus (84%) is more important than stopping the decline in the economy (16%).

“Large majorities of Americans across all demographic groups prioritize public health over the economy, including those who have been laid off or are seeking work, and Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, including 2016 Trump voters.”

Majorities also think that they themselves, the Congress, and Trump should be doing more to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Indeed a third of Americans think that Trump (38%) and citizens themselves (36%) should be doing ‘much more’ to limit its spread. Two thirds of them expect, as of April 7 2020, that the spread of the coronavirus and its negative impacts on the economy will get worse over the next month.

While more than nine out of 10 Americans say they have been following the news about the coronavirus either ‘very” (63%) or “fairly” (30%) closely most of them also say they need more information about the coronavirus. “About eight in ten say they need either “a little” (22%), “some” (35%), or “a lot” more information (25%),” the survey found, and that “African Americans, liberal/moderate Republicans, and people living in urban areas are more likely than other Americans to say they need ‘a lot more information’.”

Considering the content of Trump’s daily two hour ‘briefings’ on the situation it is hardly any wonder that many of them are following the news and simultaneously want more information. Once again this is not a conclusion of 4C but rather one derived from their research. Perhaps Trump could improve on his two hour incoherent rambles by reading Abraham Lincoln’s 272 word Gettysburg Address and his 701 word Second Inaugural.

In modern politics, let alone pandemics, who people actually trust is crucially important. It is logical not to trust experts if you: listen to Trump calling on you to ‘liberate’ locked down States; watch Fox News before you head out to march in the streets wielding rapid fire automatic weapons; protest your right to ignore lockdowns in what has been described as ‘Zombie Hordes’; believe in specious cures and virus origins; and, generally demonstrate the impact on average US IQ if your actions lead to your untimely demise.

In contrast, the vast majority of Americans (nine in 10), “trust health professionals – doctors, infectious disease experts, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – as sources of accurate information about the spread of the coronavirus”.

“Large majorities of Americans also trust local news outlets (TV and newspapers) and national news networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) as sources of accurate information about the coronavirus.

“More than half of Americans trust their members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, while fewer Americans trust President Trump, as a source of accurate information about the coronavirus.”

54% of respondents trust Joe Biden while 22% somewhat distrust and 23% strongly distrust him. In contrast, the figures for Trump are 48% trust 16% somewhat distrust and 36% strongly distrust.

Interestingly the respective trust figures are roughly comparable with the latest presidential polling numbers although some of the very latest polls give Biden a 10% lead over Trump among registered voters.

A friend, Gary Max, provided an actuary’s comparison of how the US is doing on COVID-19 compared with the us. Not the US as whole because comparing our relatively low population densities with that of New York is obviously a nonsense. But a more useful comparison is Australia versus Texas as they have similar population sizes and urban population densities even though Australia is actually bigger than Texas – a fact which may not be generally known in the Lone Star State outside Austin.

Australia’s population is 25.5 million and Texas’ is 29.9 million. As at April 18 in Australia we have carried out 391,000 tests – Texas 170,000. We have 6,533 reported cases – Texas 17,760. Australia has 2,647 active cases – Texas 13,131. In Australia 65 have died – in Texas 439. In Australia 3,821 have recovered and in Texas 4,190. Our fatality rate so far is 1.7% – in Texas it is 9.5%

Texas has done less than half the testing of Australia but, despite lower testing rates, Texas has more than twice the number of reported cases and five times the number of active cases.

In Australia the death toll is highest among the old. In Texas it is highest among poor Texans and those of Hispanic origin. Indeed, the toll is heaviest on those who – when they do vote – tend to vote Democrat. A convenient outcome for Republican Governor, Greg Abbott.

So may we say: only in America!