In 2019, a paper was published by the BMJ entitled ‘Assessing global preparedness for a global pandemic’. Its conclusions: that the western developed world, including the US and the UK, were amongst the best prepared for a mass viral outbreak of the kind we are experiencing now. The reality: their predictions couldn’t have been less helpful in preparing us for the hellish times which lay ahead.
It’s no secret that America and Britain have fared particularly badly in this pandemic, with 106,130 and 38,429 deaths respectively to date, claiming first and second position in the death toll table. By contrast, governments which were supposed to be the most ill-equipped for an epidemic, like many countries of Africa, are managing remarkably well to date, with far fewer deaths. Take Senegal for example, which has only 30 recorded deaths out of a population of 16 million. This has been put down to their rapid response to the outbreak, involving the immediate closing of borders and an effective programme of contact tracing. Britain, on the other hand, is only now figuring out its ‘track and trace’ system, and its borders are still open. It hasn’t even begun to enforce a 14 day quarantine for incomers, something which has been operational in other parts of the globe for months now. In short, the basics have not been addressed.
The US is also succumbing dreadfully to the virus, after a delayed response from President Trump, who refused for some time to accept the pandemic was real, claiming that coronavirus was just like flu. Since then, he has failed abysmally at leading his country through the crisis; even at one point, during one of his typically muddled and confused addresses implying that people could ingest disinfectant to combat the disease. Let’s face it: Trump isn’t remotely interested in public health. His game is business, nowhere in the ‘Art of the Deal’ does it speak about preparing for public health crises. His goal all along has been to try to save the economy. Unfortunately, by delaying lockdown, many more lives have been lost than need have been.
Europe’s response has been patchy, with markedly different statistics between neighbouring states. Merkel’s Germany has had a far better pandemic than Salvini’s Italy, for example. And here it’s worth asking ourselves if indeed there is a pattern emerging: is it the case that western populist governments have struggled more during this crisis than others? And why?
The populist governments of Trump, Johnson and Salvini all have something in common, and I’m not just talking about their anti-immigration stance or euro-scepticism. Although they are all about the idea of the nation state, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of managing a public health crisis, they’re a disaster. Just look at the social unrest in all three countries at present. In the US, the motivation for recent demonstrations has of course been the murder of George Floyd, but tied up with this is the issue of Covid-19. Coronavirus has affected african americans more than any other sector of the population, with reports they are dying at three times the rate of those of white ethnicity in the States.
Tensions have also reached boiling point in the UK. The epidemic has targeted the most vulnerable in British society – the elderly, and the poor, along with BAME communities. An underfunded NHS together with a malnourished, poverty-stricken population has been no match for this ruthless disease. The last straw for a nation exhausted after 10 weeks of lockdown was seeing Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings breach lockdown regulations and get off scot-free. The Prime Minister, seemingly oblivious to the strife he has caused, has lost support from his party, voters and even the right-wing press. The incident won’t be forgotten any time soon. For many it epitomizes the arrogance of this administration.
In Italy as well, things have reached fever-pitch. Even right-wingers have been out on the streets recently protesting against the government’s handling of the crisis. Thousands of businesses have been forced to shut across the country, leaving families without income for months on end. There have been reports of people with nothing to eat. As a result, the anti-fascist ‘Sardines’ movement has gone from strength to strength, hoping to unseat Salvini at the next election.
This pandemic has exposed the phenomenon that is populism for what it is. By its very nature, it is anti-establishment and rejects traditional structures and institutions. Establishment institutions have of course many flaws, but they provide stability. As one LSE article recently put it: ‘Without them, there is chaos’. – hence what we are witnessing at present. Both Trump and Johnson indicated at the outset of the pandemic that they weren’t entirely convinced it was as serious as was being suggested, and this scepticism has been the root of their downfall. Instead of taking the swift action required at a time like this, they dithered about, questioning whether anything had to be done at all. Meanwhile the virus spread like wildfire. Approval ratings for both leaders have plummeted as a result and their futures are on the line.
Coronavirus has been a bitter pill to swallow for their supporters. The pandemic has unmasked these populists for what they really are: capitalists, not socialists. We shouldn’t be misled by their name, these ‘populists’ are far from being ‘of the people’. They put business and profit first – not what you need during a public health crisis. The disregard for human life so blatantly demonstrated by the US, UK and Italian governments in their attitude to migrants over the years, is now manifesting itself in their approach to Covid-19. Did voters really think that these politicians cared about them any more than they did about the desperate Syrians stranded off the Italian coast?
The tide may now be turning for the wave of populism which has swept across the West in the past few years. The pendulum may swing back. With the likely election of Joe Biden in the US we could see the beginning of a return to mainstream politics. But whether we will see a return to ‘normality’ is a different question entirely…
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.