The Conflict Over Masks, Social Distancing And Reopening : Consider This from NPR A new coronavirus vaccine candidate shows encouraging results. It's early, but preliminary data shows it appears to be eliciting the kind of immune response capable of preventing disease.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has been signaling that more government spending might be necessary to prevent long-term economic damage.

As the pandemic becomes more political, researchers are concerned debates over masks, social distancing and reopening the economy are inflaming an already divided nation. Incidents of violence are rare, but concerning to experts.

Plus, a 102-year-old woman who survived the influenza of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II and now, COVID-19.

Find and support your local public radio station

Sign up for 'The New Normal' newsletter

This episode was recorded and published as part of this podcast's former 'Coronavirus Daily' format.

Encouraging Vaccine News; Pandemic Grows More Political

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The growth in new cases in the United States is slowing. But still, 90,000 people here have died from COVID-19. There is good news on a potential vaccine. A Massachusetts company reported Monday that an experimental vaccine given to 45 patients showed encouraging results. None of the patients had serious side effects, and eight of them produced the type of antibody known to fight off the virus in the lab. The usual caveats apply - this test is very early and very small and a vaccine isn't likely to be widely available until next year at the earliest. But it is still promising. Coming up - what social scientists have to say about how reactions to the pandemic are getting more and more political.

This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Monday, May 18.


MCEVERS: When the chair of the Federal Reserve speaks, the economy listens. That's why the current chair, Jerome Powell, like Fed chairs before him, speaks very carefully.


JEROME POWELL: The current downturn is unique in that it is attributable to the virus and the steps taken to limit its fallout.

MCEVERS: In a speech last week, Powell, a Republican appointed by the president, carefully signaled that unlike past recessions, the economy today isn't really broken. It's just powered down.


POWELL: This time, high inflation was not a problem. There was no economy-threatening bubble to pop and no unsustainable boom to bust.

MCEVERS: And he said more government spending could help.


POWELL: Additional fiscal support could be costly but worth it if it helps avoid long-term damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.


MCEVERS: Powell said the same thing in the "60 Minutes" segment that aired over the weekend when he again warned about possible long-term damage to the economy.


POWELL: The good news is that we have the tools to limit that longer run damage by continuing to provide support to households and businesses as we get through this.

MCEVERS: Continuing to provide support means Congress approving money and the Federal Reserve helping to give that money out.


POWELL: Congress has done a great deal and done it very quickly. There is no precedent in post-World War II American history that's even close to what Congress has done. And the question is, will it be enough? And I don't think we know the answer to that. It may well be that the Fed has to do more. It may be that Congress has to do more.

MCEVERS: But Congress has not been able to agree on more. And the president said earlier this month...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're in no rush. We're in no rush.

MCEVERS: There's no timetable for more spending.


TRUMP: The Democrats - the Democrats have to do what they have to do. But I would say...


MCEVERS: Here's another way the situation with the economy now is different from hard times in the past.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: This morning, new numbers showing the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A staggering number and the worst since the Great Depression.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Worse than anything we have seen since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate spiking to 14.7%...

MCEVERS: Yes, people are unemployed, but in a lot of other ways, what's happening now is not a repeat of the 1930s. NPR's Scott Horsley explains.


SCOTT HORSLEY: The pandemic has already taken a staggering toll, both in lives lost and jobs interrupted. But former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says this is not a rerun of the last century's financial calamity.


BEN BERNANKE: Clearly, people have made comparisons to the Great Depression. It's not a very good comparison.

HORSLEY: Bernanke, who is a student of the Great Depression, says that crisis was triggered by a financial meltdown and made worse by bad policy choices, including the decision to raise interest rates. What's more, as Bernanke he told an audience at the Brookings Institution, the Depression dragged on for a dozen years. While he doesn't expect a rebound from our current crisis in the next six months or so, he doesn't see it stretching out indefinitely either.


BERNANKE: If all goes well, in a year or two, we should be in a substantially better position.

HORSLEY: That's supported by a different historical example for more than a decade before the Great Depression. After the flu pandemic of 1918, the U.S. economy bounced back relatively quickly.

CAROLA FRYDMAN: I think there is quite a lot to be hopeful for.

HORSLEY: Economic historian Carola Frydman of the Kellogg School of Management says the so-called Spanish flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide, including hundreds of thousands in the U.S. It also prompted some of the same social distancing measures we've adopted against the coronavirus with shuttered bars, schools and churches. Still, the economic damage was short lived and the U.S. enjoyed strong growth in the decade that followed. Frydman believes that could happen this time as well.

FRYDMAN: As soon as people feel confident again interacting and being able to go about their business, I would not expect the economic fallout to last a lot longer than that.

HORSLEY: Of course, no one's certain how long it will take for people to feel comfortable shopping or traveling again and how many businesses and families might go under in the meantime. President Trump has long been pushing for higher trade barriers. He told Fox Business this past week he's getting less resistance thanks to the pandemic.


TRUMP: We have a supply chain where they're made in all different parts of the world. And one little piece of the world goes bad, and the whole thing is messed up. I said, we shouldn't have supply chains. We should have them all in the United States.

HORSLEY: Here, the Great Depression does offer a useful lesson. In the 1930s, the U.S. and other countries turned their backs on trade, adopting steep tariffs in an effort to prop up their depression-scarred economies. Chad Bown at the Peterson Institute for International Economics says it backfired.

CHAD BOWN: It made it very, very difficult for countries to grow their economies again and use trade to help them get there.

HORSLEY: Bown acknowledges protectionism is a natural reflex at a time like this, but he warns it's counterproductive. The coronavirus doesn't have to touch off another Great Depression. But with misguided policy, it could.


MCEVERS: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.


MCEVERS: Public opinion polls show that the vast majority of Americans want to reopen cautiously and to follow the advice of public health officials. But those same polls show that people are becoming more polarized over the coronavirus, and that has some social scientists worried. NPR's Hannah Allam talked about that recently with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang.


AILSA CHANG: Hey, Hannah.


CHANG: So, I mean, it goes without saying that political divisions were already pretty bad before the coronavirus. So just take us through what you see happening to those divisions now.

ALLAM: That's right. I mean, the kind of polarization that's taken hold in recent years is way beyond the old Republican-Democratic divides, the debates over policies and issues. But we've seen a really nasty turn in the political fights over when and how to reopen, about stay-at-home orders and this posturing on masks that extends all the way to the White House.

CHANG: Yeah. Let's take masks, for example. How have masks become a symbol of this polarization that you're talking about right now?

ALLAM: Well, there are lots of reasons why people mask or don't mask. But for many, it's become another signifier of political identity. There's a sector of society that just refuses to mask. There are memes about it. It's for the weak. It's government overreach. It's mind control. And some of the symbolism from that comes from President Trump. I spoke to Rachel Kleinfeld at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She studies polarization and violence. She says even the mask itself is kind of a flashpoint now, especially in an election year. And Trump is on the record saying that wearing a mask is not for him.

RACHEL KLEINFELD: Trump recognizes that by talking about masking in a certain way, he can play on an identity. And it's an identity as virility versus fear, an identity of urban versus rural, an identity of race even, given who's being hit by the virus. And he can do all those things by triggering something that was not polarizing before, which is whether or not you wear a mask in public.

CHANG: Given these heightened tensions, how concerned do you think we should be about these frustrations turning into something bigger?

ALLAM: Yeah. Well, we're already seeing some violence related to the pandemic response. And I'm talking about beyond the guys with guns showing up to the state capitals. It's low-level, and it's isolated, but it's still pretty chilling. A shooting at a McDonald's, breaking the arm of a Target employee, the beating of a 7-Eleven clerk - all related to enforcing distancing measures. And there are stories every day about intimidation around whether you do or don't mask. Right now those are extreme reactions. They're not the norm. But the worry is polarization festers, and if left unchecked, it has a way of spilling into the streets. I talked to Tim Phillips about that risk. He runs the nonprofit Beyond Conflict. It studies polarization and global conflicts. And they have a report coming out soon that finds that Americans are polarized but not as polarized as they think, that both sides overestimate how much mutual disdain there is. So, yes, Phillips is concerned, but he says it's important to keep things in perspective.

TIM PHILLIPS: When we see the armed militia in Michigan, when we see people sort of defying the police, we tend to think that that's representative of the other side, that they must all think that way. And yet there's polling in the United States that showed that across the Republican-Democratic divide, a majority of Americans recognize that there's a public health crisis and we have to do something about it.

ALLAM: So he's saying it's a challenging moment but not a hopeless one.


MCEVERS: NPR's Hannah Allam talking to All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang.


MCEVERS: Sophie Avouris is 102. She survived the influenza pandemic of 1918. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II. And now she has survived the coronavirus.


EFFIE STROUTHIDES: Even when she was, like, really sick, the doctors said she was still kind of spry.

MCEVERS: Sophie's daughter Effie says her mom fought off COVID-19 in a Manhattan nursing home. Her family couldn't visit, but they kept in touch with her doctor about how she was doing.


STROUTHIDES: She would joke around a little bit or smile when he would come in. And I thought, yeah, that's my mother.

MCEVERS: Effie Strouthides talked to NPR's Morning Edition.

For more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station and in our daily coronavirus newsletter The New Normal. Sign up at We'll be back with more tomorrow.

I'm Kelly McEvers.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.