The Worldwide Failure of Right-Wing Governments in Handling the Pandemic
As some countries prepare to return to their pre-pandemic, normal lives, others are sliding back into deadly second waves. Throughout, a clear trend has emerged; right-wing populist governments have failed to respond effectively to the pandemic. The core of populism’s divisive politics is the distinction between two separate sets of people in the political order – the innocent, always hardworking people, and the traitorous, piliferous, and corrupt elites. The authoritarian leaders have milked this trope and bungled their handling of the pandemic due to certain similar causes.
In this article, I would like to focus on India under Narendra Modi, the United States under Donald Trump, and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro as prime examples of authoritarian leaders costing citizens dearly.
First, a pandemic does not respect man-made borders, checkpoints, or restrictions, and thus global health institutions are central to combat a pandemic. The World Health Organisation [WHO] is a shining example of international health cooperation. Although infectious diseases have always threatened nations, states eventually came to realise international cooperation as necessary to prevent transmission along travel routes, with the WHO evolving into a standing international governance system.
But by the nature of its tenets, resurgent nationalism is undermining WHO leadership. The lack of China’s cooperation with the CDC and WHO may have played a significant role in delaying the implementation of preventative measures by many countries. In contrast with pandemic needs, nationalism seeks to turn states inward, prioritising national interests over the globalised good. This puts them firmly at odds with the system and incapable of responding effectively.
Second is the distrust of scientific and fact-based evidence that is so prevalent in the populist camp. The most useful tactic in a pandemic is showing commitment to scientific evidence and listening to subject-matter experts. But populist leaders, aware that they have a narrow base of supporters, do not adopt evidence-based deliberation as a strategy. As such, they have a vested interest to incentivise fake news and misinformation campaigns to a point where truth and lies have no clear boundaries.
The Trump administration was notorious for politicising what was a simple medical measure and by extension, the pandemic itself. Many of the lies spouted by the former president re-energised anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements in the US. Similarly, Jair Bolsonaro calling Covid-19 a ‘little flu’ and firing the health minister for attempting to raise awareness led many Brazilians to undermine containment measures. In India, misinformation has promoted the lie that cow dung or cow urine can help cure or ward off the coronavirus. The effect of having leaders dismiss the pandemic is dangerous as it prompts a proportionate response by the people who also dismiss it.
The third trend is simply not giving the pandemic the attention it must be given, to avoid disaster. This is essentially downplaying, where a circumstance is intentionally given lower relevance so as to lure people into a false sense of security. President Trump often downplayed the virus as just another flu and compared death statistics with other diseases to dismiss its relevance. Prime Minister Modi on the other hand initially claimed a mere 21-day fight against Covid-19. One reason for this could be the economic status of these countries. The main policy that populists bank on is the growth and development of the country and its economy. To counteract the slump caused by the pandemic many of these countries published false figures such as death rates, testing, and growth rates to mislead the public.
These leaders also share other common tropes such as: all three project themselves as political outsiders who have forced themselves into national politics to rid the system of pre-existing corrupt “elites”. Elites who pandered to self-interest and pampered minority groups at the expense of the "truly marginalised" i.e. the majority. All three also shape their support base by “othering” minority groups, immigrants in the US, Muslims in India, and Indigenous communities in Brazil. They also dislike criticisms of their performance, they intimidate media critics, use antiquated laws and measures to clamp down on dissent regarding the pandemic.
However, one thing that ultimately binds them is their mishandled response to COVID-19. All have consistently had the highest number of cases, with public health infrastructure crumbling, misinformation spreading and deaths rising. All this, and the common person bears the brunt of these egotistical ‘leaders’.