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Were some political systems better positioned to beat the pandemic than others? “This covid epidemic may actually lance the boil of populism,” Francis Fukuyama, the acclaimed political philosopher, told the BBC last year. “I don’t think there’s any correlation between being a democracy and doing well or poorly [in dealing with the coronavirus]. But there’s definitely a correlation between being a populist leader and doing badly.”
Fukuyama made his diagnosis at a time when the United States under former president Donald Trump seemed the textbook example of pandemic management gone wrong. Case counts were soaring while the White House fumbled the federal response, feuded with state governors and cast doubt on the recommendations of public health experts and blame on foreign adversaries and domestic rivals alike. Chest-thumping nationalism of the Trumpist variety, the argument went, could offer little in the face of a pandemic that required sober technocratic judgment and international coordination.
A year later, Fukuyama’s diagnosis remains broadly accurate. The two current worst-hit major countries, Brazil and India, are governed by right-wing nationalists who have presided over hideous surges of the virus that overwhelmed hospital systems and filled cemeteries and crematoriums. Daily deaths are now in the thousands in both countries, with the real number in India likely far higher than the reported one.
Brazil passed 400,000 covid-related deaths last week, trailing only the United States; the majority of those deaths occurred in the first four months of this year. India recorded its highest official number of coronavirus infections Saturday. The following day, it announced 3,689 deaths in the previous 24 hours, marking a new national record.
Critics point their fingers at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In vastly different circumstances, both leaders prioritized their domestic political battles over concrete action to curb the effects of the pandemic.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Brazil’s federal government has downplayed the severity of a virus that has maimed this country of 210 million,” wrote my colleague Terrence McCoy. “Bolsonaro has called on people to live their lives normally. Enough have listened — either because of poverty, politics or boredom — to undermine uneven containment measures.”
Last week, a Senate commission launched to investigate Bolsonaro’s role in the country’s calamity. The probe may produce evidence for potential impeachment. “It is a true health, economic, and political tragedy, and the main responsibility lies with the president,” Humberto Costa, an opposition member of the commission, told the Intercept.
In India, Modi prematurely declared victory over the virus earlier this year before participating in a series of huge political rallies around the country ahead of a number of state elections. Results released Sunday saw Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP suffer defeat or underperform in a number of key contests, though most ballots had been cast before the severity of the current covid surge had become clear. (Full disclosure: As readers of Today’s WorldView may remember, my father is an opposition member in the Indian parliament.)
“Rather than making urgent preparations for a second wave of cases in an already weak health-care system, the government put much of its focus on vaccinations — a campaign too limited to blunt the oncoming disaster,” wrote my colleagues Joanna Slater and Niha Masih. “The government repeatedly chose self-congratulation over caution, publicly stating that the pandemic was in its ‘end game’ in India as recently as last month.”
“Within a span of 15 months, our government has presented a textbook lesson in misgovernance,” wrote political scientist Suhas Palshikar in the Indian Express. First, there was a heavy-handed and somewhat ineffective lockdown that proved ruinous for the country’s economy. Then, Palshikar noted, the government struggled to provide adequate economic relief to a beleaguered country, failed to bolster critical health-care infrastructure and dawdled in its vaccine rollout. “The pandemic was not going to be an easy affair, it was bound to be an ordeal for any government and ‘mistakes’ were bound to happen,” he wrote, gesturing to the BJP’s initial bravado. “But precisely because of that, wisdom was in not claiming wisdom.”
“We don’t learn from our mistakes at all. The first wave ended and we didn’t think that a second wave could come,” Aparna Hegde, a Mumbai-based doctor warning of the cascading effects of the pandemic on the country’s hospitals, told the Financial Times. “India doesn’t have to be like this. That’s the thing that’s heartbreaking.”
It’s not just about India and Brazil. Populist leaders, as Fukuyama put it, have fared badly elsewhere, while using the pretext of the pandemic to deepen their rule. That’s the case, arguably, in the Philippines, where critics accused nationalist strongman President Rodrigo Duterte of further shrinking the country’s democratic space with his government’s lockdown measures. Nevertheless, a current surge of the virus has lead to fears that Manila’s hospitals may soon be overwhelmed. Illiberal Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban briefly imposed emergency rule last year — yet his country still has one of the world’s highest covid death rates.
Of course, Europe is full of governments run by centrist parties or factions further to the left that have also floundered amid the pandemic, including center-left coalition governments from Spain to Belgium to Italy. Beyond the Antipodes, where both Australia’s right-wing government and New Zealand’s center-left one got a boost from their geographic remoteness, the only enduring case studies of governments faring “well” during the pandemic lie in Asia. Countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are variously seen as models of success, though their political systems and leaders are all quite different. China, where the virus first emerged, clamped down on its spread with an authoritarian mobilization few other nations could match.
But blundering nationalist governance is no longer the dominant story line in the pandemic. The rollout of vaccines has started a totally different debate on the ethics of vaccine nationalism and the geopolitics of the jabs’ production and distribution. There, it’s more about the global haves vs. have-nots, with the Biden administration racing ahead in vaccinating the American population, while only belatedly moving to help expand vaccine access to other parts of the world.
“The self proclaimed leaders of the liberal international order have proven to be the nationalists, at least with regards to vaccines, medicines and other critical supplies,” wrote Akhil Ramesh, a fellow at the Pacific Forum. “And the routinely derided nationalists of the East have proven to be compassionate globalists — with China and India leading the way in vaccine diplomacy.”