Business & Politics
The Politics of a Global Pandemic
21st August 2020
The complexities of coping with the current pandemic revolve around more than just measuring intensive care unit capacity, calculating the R rate or searching for a vaccine. The political, social and economic features of this crisis are just as dangerous.
While this pandemic will have devastating, far-reaching consequences, a person’s income level, ethnicity, political ideology and worldview all combine to determine not just their individual risk of infection, but also how seriously their country or region may be affected.
When politicians of different ideological beliefs clash, and the authority of science is called into question, you have a very fractured and uncoordinated response, perpetuating coronavirus transmission globally. Globalisation and its accompanying cross-border travel and trade only serve to exacerbate the situation.
An article by the University of Pennsylvania has used the data from a study of 146 countries to shed light on the effects of democracy, state capacity and income inequality on the dynamics of epidemics. They found that in democratic nations, greater levels of transparency, public trust and accountability were associated with increased compliance in terms of public health measures and faster response times.
However, income inequality was found to have a profound effect on compliance – in many cases, those earning a lower income, especially those who are unable to access state supports, simply can’t afford to stay home and therefore, cannot always comply with social distancing. Unfortunately, as was the case in the UK, democracy isn’t always associated with strong state capacity, or indeed, the willingness to utilise it.
Despite its position as number two on the Global Health Security Index for pandemic readiness, conservative political forces in the UK bungled the response through its policies on healthcare and the public service, in addition to its prioritising economic interests and Brexit. Six months before the pandemic, the then-Prime Minister Theresa May abolished the “Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee” when a no-deal Brexit appeared to be a more threatening reality, resulting in the government shifting its focus significantly. The committee, which included senior cabinet ministers, could have resulted in a faster, more effective response, saving lives in the process.
Boris Johnson’s government and many others, Trump included, fetishise the “free market”, which leads to certain economic interests taking priority over a robust and coordinated state response. When the goal is to privatise public services and keep wages down; better pay, conditions and funding for the NHS and its workers would interfere with this goal and make it difficult for the Conservative government to outsource their workforces. Similarly, in the US, at a time when it is needed most, Trump has blocked access to new insurance applicants under the Affordable Care Act, leaving the most vulnerable in a desperately precarious position by increasing levels of inequality.
There have been many discussions about what should be prioritised in the emergency responses to the pandemic. Health professionals view saving lives as the absolute priority; this seems logical, but the public health measures put in place may also negatively impact the health of those with non-COVID-related illnesses who are unable or afraid to access health services. Others have spoken of their desire for the response to remain free from political interference; that government restrictions are too intrusive and reminiscent of “Big Government”. President Trump has stated that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem”, evidence that he views the crisis through the lens of political ambition. He has accused the Democrats of concocting this “coronavirus hoax” to damage a booming economy, which would affect his chances of re-election.
“Ideology and political identity play an important role, not just in interpreting individual risk but also willingness to adopt measures such as social distancing and mask wearing”
The Brazilian leader, Bolsonaro, has also prioritised economic interests, perhaps for different reasons. With few resources in his toolbox to fight the pandemic, Bolsonaro chose the economy – both as a way to deflect from the virus and as a means of avoiding responsibility for another devastating recession, not long after the country’s 2015 economic downturn.
By placing the economy ahead of public health, Brazil may believe it can avoid catastrophic economic collateral damage; however, its extremely high infection rate and death toll will nonetheless wreak havoc on the entire economic, social and political fabric of Brazilian society, not to mention its already overburdened hospitals.
Ideology and political identity play an important role, not just in interpreting individual risk but also willingness to adopt measures such as social distancing and mask wearing. In a YouGov survey of 1,000 Americans, it was discovered that an individual’s worldview was one of the most important predictors of risk perception around the world; those who scored high on individualism (usually in Western nations such as the US and UK) were less concerned about the virus than their counterparts in more collectivist countries, such as South Korea.
The survey also revealed a partisan divide on important issues such as compliance and trust; 67% of Democrats wore masks compared with 54% of Republicans while 70% of Democrats and only 10% of Republicans trusted the WHO. A significant divide was also noted in the levels of trust regarding Trump’s ability to handle the pandemic; perhaps, not surprisingly, 86% of Republicans trusted Trump compared with only 10% of Democrats. Polarised views on such matters often result in ineffective and inconsistent social distancing and mask– wearing throughout the country, thus hampering any effective suppression of the virus.
A lack of consensus on how to mitigate the pandemic, or even how to interpret/perceive risk has left many states alone, scrambling to find their own solutions. The politics of each state governor can also determine the impact of coronavirus on their community, as evidenced by Florida’s Republican governor, a keen supporter of Trump who often heeds the advice of his wife or the President instead of health officials.
The wearing of face masks has become a hotly-debated topic; as we have previously observed in France with its burqa ban and the ensuing controversy, face coverings are highly political symbols for many. They are often viewed as a sign of subservience to public health – a Trump official referred to masks as ‘COVID burqas. Until now, face masks were a strong symbol of Asian identity and values, often seen as an inherently communitarian instrument and a hallmark of courtesy and good manners.
Those opposed to mask-wearing do so based on libertarian individualism and its associated personal freedoms. Much of the debate surrounding face coverings centres around the colour of the face beneath it; many African Americans harbour concerns about racial profiling, and people of Asian origin/descent have been targeted for harassment and abuse. This has not been helped by Trump’s constant scapegoating of China, repeatedly referring to “the Chinese virus”.
The global pandemic has showcased the best and worst of politics and humanity, with responses varying from coordinated, compassionate and communitarian approaches; to individualistic, free-market obsessed and ineffective. There will be many lessons to learn, irrespective of the global outcome. What is clear, however, is that polarising political ideologies and social policies have had a detrimental effect on what could have been a sharp, fair and effective solution to a global problem.
Featured photo by Martin Sanchez