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Is the coronavirus igniting a war of all against all?

Is the coronavirus igniting a war of all against all?
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As with all national crises, COVID-19 has stimulated calls for unity and sacrifices for the common good. And millions of Americans have responded magnificently. Health care professionals, first responders, and police officers have put their lives on the line. Unsung heroes include the 8,000 volunteers at “Invisible Hands,” an organization founded by two 20-somethings, who deliver groceries and supplies to people who are confined to their apartments or homes.

But, alas, there is considerable evidence as well that the fight against the novel coronavirus is also becoming a Hobbesian war of all against all, as individuals and groups compete with one another to survive. And, along with the virus, these (un)civil wars may well get worse before they get better. Unless we do a lot more to flatten their curves.

The generational divide: Politicians and public health officials are redoubling their efforts to get young people who believe they can shrug off the virus to practice social distancing. They have not yet been entirely successful. Dan Patrick, the Lt. Gov. of Texas, did not help matters when he suggested to Tucker Carlson of Fox News that senior citizens should be willing to put themselves at greater risk to open up the nation’s economy. “My message,” Patrick declared, “is let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living... and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.”

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Competition and conflict between states: Because the federal government is playing catch-up and has declined to assume the responsibility for the manufacture and distribution of supplies, states have been forced to compete with one another, driving up the price of N95 masks, PPE, and ventilators. The competition is likely to intensify as coronavirus hot spots appear in more states — if the federal government continues to drag its feet.

At the end of March, Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor of Rhode Island, directed police to stop cars with New York State license plates and force drivers to self-quarantine for 14 days. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoRand Paul rips 'leftwing media' for focusing on COVID-19 cases: 'Mortality rates are plummeting' Trump aide accuses CNN's Chris Cuomo of breaking quarantine while COVID-19 positive in heated interview New York surpasses half a million COVID-19 cases MORE, the Democratic governor of New York, declared, “I don’t believe it was legal. I don’t believe it was neighborly” and threatened to sue. Raimondo replaced the directive with an executive order compelling visitors from any state — arriving in Rhode Island by any mode of transportation — for non-work purposes, to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, issued a similar order for people entering his state from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Louisiana. Checkpoints along Interstates 10 and 95 were reportedly backed up for many miles.

Because the virus is now present in every state, with community spread, these measures, which are difficult to enforce, may not do much good. But they will almost certainly be enacted by other states.

Exacerbating partisan polarization: When dealing with national disasters, political leaders usually set aside partisan differences. President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE, however, has exacerbated partisan polarization during the coronavirus crisis. During a recent press briefing, Trump cited the complaints of three Democratic governors that he had not responded quickly enough to the crisis or federalized the production of ventilators and masks, and told Vice President Pence not to return their calls, demanding that state officials be publicly “appreciative” if they want help from the federal government.

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Trump said he did not believe that N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo really needed “40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.” He made fun of Washington State Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert Inslee10 under-the-radar races to watch in November On The Trail: A third coronavirus wave builds just before Election Day Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE’s constant “chirping” about the shortage of testing kits and medical supplies. He blasted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had pushed for quick delivery of PPE, ventilators and an unfulfilled order of 225,000 masks. Trump seemed to tie his decision on granting Michigan national emergency status to the governor’s attitude. And in a tweet, he told Michiganders, “Your governor, Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer, is way in over her head, she doesn’t have a clue. Likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude!

This episode, reinforced by a multitude of similar comments from the president, raised concerns that he will play a partisan game of red and blue in determining who gets what and when, who lives and who dies.

Rekindling rural-urban culture wars: Culture wars between farmers and city-dwellers are as old as the republic. Think Thomas Jefferson. And William Jennings Bryan. Recall that in 1961 Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) opined that the United States “would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea.” And that in 1983, the Rev. Jerry Falwell declared that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it’s God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

Know as well that a survey conducted in 2016 — before Donald Trump was elected — found that 58 percent of Americans believe big cities “are the least like the ‘real’ America” and 38 percent of Republicans believe New Yorkers have “worse values than people in the rest of the country.”

Might it then be appropriate to ask some hard questions which no one can now answer with certainty? How are Americans in the hinterlands responding to the carnage now being visited by the coronavirus on hotspots, all of which are in cities? How do they think it is being handled? Do they think that President Trump’s claim that staff in New York hospitals are stealing masks is credible? If and when the virus descends on their communities, will they react differently? Who, if anyone, will they blame?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.