The Politics of Covid

James Denselow

Naturally the focus on Covid has been on those who’ve paid the ultimate price. Over 3.2 million deaths and counting since the virus was first recognised at the end of 2019. The numbers of the dead are followed by the infected, estimated at 154 million and counting although it is widely accepted to be a huge underreporting of the actual tally. Behind the dead and the ill are those who’ve been caught up in the shockwaves of the pandemic; those who’ve lost their livelihood, their education or a sense of a future in the fallout of the worst global crisis in a generation.

Where there is less consensus is around the political fallout of the pandemic. There is an inherent contradiction at the heart of how political leaders have fared in this time. On one hand their decision making, whether to lock down or not, what public health measures to mandate or not – have repercussions like no other public policy choice. Unlike education or economic policies which may take years to demonstrate success or failure, the brutal short-term nature of a wildfire novel pandemic means that the choices can be reflected almost immediately in rates of death and infection.

Yet simultaneously there is the desire and hope from all political tribes and parties for their governments to succeed against this invisible enemy. Opposition parties have had to negotiate this constructive criticism without being accused of trying to score petty political points.

There is a spectrum of political response to the pandemic. At one end there is extreme denial as to the disease and the scale of its impact, typified by former American President Trump and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. Their approach has been characterised by a dismissive narrative as to the seriousness of the disease and a more faith-based hope that things will simply ‘get better’. Crucially in times of popularity they oppose lockdowns and restrictions on normal life. In the US 38% of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of the health crisis in January of this year, a not insignificant number. By contrast in March 54% of Brazilians regard Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis as bad or awful.

The other end of the spectrum is the most cautious approach to the virus combined with the most significant restrictions or use of laws to protect public health. Although we must caveat it by remembering that she leads an island nation with a small population, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been lauded for her approach and was rewarded with a landslide election victory in October.

Where things become slightly more complicated is how negative responses to handling the virus have been reversed by support to a country’s vaccination programme. In the UK for example the Government oversaw the worst death rate in the whole of Europe and saw them fall being in some polls in November of last year. Since then though their huge investment and rollout of vaccines has seen them bounce back to a health poll lead.

Likewise, in the US recently elected President Biden has experience a ‘vaccine bounce’ and recently received the highest marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with 65% supporting his response. Ninety-percent of Democrats, 61% of independents and 39% of Republicans said they approved of Biden’s response, the poll showed. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be hoping that the dip in his popularity that has coincided with India being gripped by a terrible wave of the virus, can be recovered by a vaccine boost. It would appear that the vaccinated survivors of Covid are happy to reward Governments responsible regardless of their record on fatalities to date.

The political debate ahead, certainly for wealthier countries, is around what post-Covid freedoms will look like and at what cost. In the UK for example there is a simmering conversation around the use of ‘Covid passports’ which have a huge range of connotations from civil liberties to basic principles of fairness between those who’ve been vaccinated and those who haven’t. The key lesson to date though is that polling tends to show that people express preference on the basis of the moment – e.g is country in crisis or not – and the future – i.e is the country emerging more rapidly into a normal situation or not, rather than looking backwards as to decisions and/or mistakes made so far.


by: James Denselow

James Denselow