Foreign Affairs

Is Covid-19 turning the tide against national populism?

Populist leaders would not listen to 'experts' and could not imagine a threat that would ignore their borders, thus worsening Covid-19 in their countries, writes Professor Robert Patman

The global pandemic, Covid-19, is causing economic and medical crises around the world but the resulting political fall-out could prove to be particularly challenging for populist leaders and governments.

Populism embraces an ideology which considers society to be divided between ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and contends the ‘will of the people’ requires the promotion of mono-culturalism, national self-interest, closed borders, and traditionalism.

Populists who have made it into power have presented themselves as the authentic voice of the people and harnessed anger, grievances, nationalism, and racism to win political support.

But the rise of populist leaders like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro – all promising to restore national greatness in their respective states – has now collided with the cold realities of Covid-19.

Since late November 2019, Covid-19 has spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan to more than 180 countries and territories, affecting every continent except Antarctica.

On January 30, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a “public health emergency of international concern” and advised countries to respond to the virus with a multifaceted strategy of testing, contact tracing, isolation and treatment.

Nevertheless, the international response to the WHO’s advice and increasingly dire warnings were mixed.

Deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity, the WHO classified Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 11.

How have the populist governments of the UK, US and Brazil reacted to this clear and present danger? To date, their policy responses can only be described as woeful and inadequate.

All three were slow to act on the WHO’s advice, and basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were largely disregarded until March.

At the same time, there was a concerted attempt in these countries in January and February to question or downplay the seriousness of the threat of Covid-19.

In the UK, the Johnson government declined in late January to participate in EU procurement schemes to increase stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with the anticipated impact of Covid-19.

Moreover, the UK did not hold its first emergency Cobra meeting (the government’s emergency response committee) on Covid-19 until March 2. After the meeting, Prime Minister Johnson said the UK was “very, very well prepared.”

It was clear the Johnson government’s initial response was framed by a so called “herd immunity” strategy whereby, in Johnson words, “you could take it [Covid-19] on the chin…and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population” without taking draconian measures that would disrupt the economy.

But by mid-March the WHO publicly questioned the absence of any clinical evidence to support the UK’s “herd immunity” response, and with the rate of infection escalating in the country, the Johnson government on March 23 ordered a strict national lockdown in an attempt to suppress the virus.

Yet this change of plan had come at a late stage in the outbreak and left the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) unprepared for the surge of critically ill patients that followed.

Currently, the hospital death toll in the UK from Covid-19 has now exceeded 11,000 people.

In the US, the parallels with the UK’s Covid-19 experience are plain.

On January 30, Peter Navarro, Donald Trump's senior trade adviser, wrote a memo warning that the coronavirus could create a pandemic. In late February, he wrote a second memo saying the virus could kill up to two million Americans.

But Trump spent much of February publicly reassuring Americans they had nothing to worry about. "We think we have it very well under control," the President said.

Trump said the number of cases in the US would soon be "down to zero" and called concerns about the virus a “hoax”.

Even as late as March 6, the US President was favourably comparing Covid-19 to the seasonal flu.

The US was very slow to develop mass testing. Instead of using a test developed by the World Health Organisation, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) opted to develop its own test.

However, it was only on March 17  that Trump publicly conceded Covid-19 was a highly contagious "invisible enemy" and necessitated robust social distancing guidelines.

Nevertheless, President Trump’s messaging – he has continued to speak of America getting back to work by May 1 - has complicated US efforts to overcome dire shortages of PPE and ventilators in a pandemic that has already cost the lives of more than 23,000 Americans.

Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro’s government has minimised the gravity of Covid-19, likening it to a “little flu” or a “cold”.

The far-right Bolsonaro government has also linked Covid-19 to China’s purported “plan for world domination” and last week urged Brazilians to get back to work – defying advice from the WHO and its own health ministry.

To be sure, the exhortations of President Bolsonaro have been largely ignored by most of Brazil’s state governors, but such leadership has done little to facilitate an effective national response at a time when Covid-19 has already accounted for 1328 deaths in the country.

So why have populist governments in the UK, US and Brazil failed so miserably in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

First, populist leaders have a view of the world that is compartmentalised into nation-states and their different populations. But Covid-19 recognises no border and makes no distinction between human beings.

Second, and not unrelated, populist leaders distrust international institutions and believe in the exceptionalism of their sovereign state. The likes of Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro largely ignored dire warnings from the WHO until March, and then the US President blamed the WHO for mishandling the pandemic.

Furthermore, these leaders showed little willingness to learn from the positive efforts of other states like South Korea, Singapore, Germany and New Zealand in dealing with the threat of Covid-19.

Third, populist leaders pride themselves on their own common sense, and are dismissive about the knowledge of experts in policy-making unless the experts are sympathetic to their political agenda.

However, the big problem is Covid-19 does not play by the political rules of populist leaders but rather by the rules of science and objective reality.

A common ingredient here is that the governments of the UK, US and Brazil made little effort in the early stages of the pandemic to consult a wide range of scientific and healthcare expertise and consequently had to play ‘catch up’ as the complexities of the crisis unfolded.

In short, these three populist governments did not imagine the impact of Covid-19 so they did not prepare properly for it. And judging by the rising level of anger and frustration in these three countries, populist leaders may yet have to pay a big political price for their failures during this pandemic.

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