How Populism Has Proven Lethal in This Pandemic

Crosses and posters showing politicians are covered in red ink during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Crosses and posters showing politicians are covered in red ink during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Originally published at Folha de S.Paulo

April 26, 2021 4:57 pm (EST)

Crosses and posters showing politicians are covered in red ink during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Crosses and posters showing politicians are covered in red ink during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Bruno Kelly/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The pandemic is where simple narratives go to die.

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Most of the predictions that people made a year ago have turned out to be false. Democracies did not systematically do better than dictatorships. Nor did the state prove to be more capable of dealing with the disruptions of the pandemic than the global economy.

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But one simple contrast might be vindicated after all.

In the first months of the pandemic, many observers argued that countries led by populist leaders who distrust science and deny the severity of the pandemic would suffer worse outcomes. Perhaps, they speculated, it might even slow or reverse the seemingly inexorable rise that the populists have enjoyed over the past decade.

Then some of the countries ruled by moderate politicians, like France and Germany, struggled while some of the countries ruled by authoritarian populists, like Poland and Hungary, seemed to do surprisingly well. The idea that populists would do especially poorly came to look like one more piece of conventional wisdom that wouldn’t survive the bonfire of viruses.

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Tragically, that is no longer the case. The longer the pandemic has dragged on, the more the quality of governance has turned out to matter. If you look around the world today, it becomes painfully clear that those countries that are ruled by populists have paid an especially heavy toll in economic damage, case load, and mortality.

Under the erratic leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has become one of the hardest hit nations in the world. The country now records thousands of deaths from Covid-19 nearly every day. Hospitals across the country remain hopelessly overloaded. In Sao Paolo, authorities recently announced that they are planning to open a “vertical cemetery” to deal with all the excess cases of deaths.

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Further north, Mexico is quickly buckling under similar pressure. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s handling of the pandemic has been similarly irresponsible. Now, the full scope of the country’s catastrophe is finally coming into view. Mexico has had over 300,000 excess deaths over the past twelve months, and overcrowded hospitals all across the nation are turning away patients who could easily be rescued if they could access medical care.

The triumvirate of major democracies laid low by populist leaders is completed by the worst hit country in the world: Narendra Modi’s India. Even though most of the country’s population remains unable to access testing for the virus, hundreds of thousands of people in the country now test positive for the virus every day. The number of cases has quintupled in less than a month, and the government still lacks a coherent plan for how to respond.

The evidence for the pandemic cost of populism is mounting elsewhere, too. Bolivia, Ecuador and the Philippines also count among the world’s worst-hit nations. And in the United States, the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden has shown how much a competent government can, even in the late stage of the game, do to improve the situation.

Those of us who are horrified by the populist surge of the past decade should take this as a tragic confirmation of our worst fears. It turns out that it really does matter for the well-being of the public whether politicians care about their citizens, believe in science, and are constrained by checks and balances that can rein them in when they go off the rails.

The price of populism has turned out to be even more deadly than we could have imagined before this terrible pandemic swept the world.

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