- My name is Tom Pepinsky, and I'm a professor in the government department here at Cornell, and also for this semester, I'm interim director of the Southeast Asia program.
Well, for political science, COVID-19 is both a real opportunity and a real challenge. Social scientists are not generally epidemiologists, so we don't know-- we don't develop treatments. We're not going to be developing ways to actually address the problem or diagnose whether or not people have had it. But what we are able to do is to speak really deeply about how existing health inequalities, policy paradigms, the structure of American government, partisanship, and federalism affect the way that the disease is experienced here in the United States.
The media environment is so cacophonous and the-- our leadership in Washington is so dysfunctional that it's hard to know if there's anything meaningful or continuous happening. In the past 48 hours-- we're recording this on April 15-- Trump has both said that he has ultimate authority to restart the country and that it's the governor's decision, so it's almost-- it's almost pure noise, I think.
I do think that it's meaningful that President Trump has suggested that he intends to de-fund the World Health Organization, which I think is, in a way that's analogous to the way that we invaded Iraq as a response to 9/11, a kind of attack on a foreign-- a foreign target which seems to me to be politically useful from the domestic American perspective. It really has nothing to do with the cause or spread of the pandemic that we're seeing right now. It's a way to basically shift attention away from his own failings and mistakes.
My research is traditionally about economic policy and identity in Southeast Asia. I'm still really engaged in that sort of research as much as possible. But I just can't do it in the same way that I did before. Travel is not possible. I can read the news from afar, but I can't do the type of in-depth fieldwork that I like to do, nor is it possible to do sort of quantitative surveys of Southeast Asia from my daughter's bedroom, which is where I am right now in Ithaca.
So what that's meant is that I've-- the focus and my research has changed. So what we've done so far is one survey of Americans-- a large survey of 3,000 Americans-- in which we asked a whole bunch of standard questions about your partisan views and things like this, but also an original battery of questions about people's health behaviors. And what we find is actually incredibly striking. There is a massive partisan difference in public health responses.
Democrats are much more likely to report having taken active steps in terms of social distancing, self-quarantining, avoiding large gatherings and so on and so forth. Now this is not inconsistent with the surveys that have been released over the past couple of weeks that show the partisan divide on this. But what we are actually are able to show is that that partisan divide is truly a partisan divide. This isn't a story of geography, which happens to interact with partisanship, or state level differences, or people with higher incomes or more education, or greater attention to the news, or who live in rural areas. This really seems to be a purely partisan divide.
That's a fundamental challenge to American public health, and I would say that two months ago, I never would have imagined that I'd be working on this question. And now, this is how-- this is, I think, going to be a core part of my research going forward.
Stay safe and stay healthy, everybody. Remember, we're in this for the long haul, and don't forget to vote safely and in absentia, if possible, in November.
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Thomas Pepinsky, an expert on economic policy at Cornell University, discusses President Donald Trump’s decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization. He also talks about his new research, which finds Democrats are much more likely to report taking active steps to combat the spread of COVID-19. This “massive partisan difference,” he says, poses “a fundamental challenge to American public health.” Pepinsky is a professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences. He studies economic policy and identity in Southeast Asia.