The complexities of coping with the current pandemic revolve around more than just measuring intensive care unit capacity, calculating the R rate or searching for a vaccine. The political, social and economic features of this crisis are just as dangerous.
While this pandemic will have devastating, far-reaching consequences, a person’s income level, ethnicity, political ideology and worldview all combine to determine not just their individual risk of infection, but also how seriously their country or region may be affected.
When politicians of different ideological beliefs clash, and the authority of science is called into question, you have a very fractured and uncoordinated response, perpetuating coronavirus transmission globally. Globalisation and its accompanying cross-border travel and trade only serve to exacerbate the situation.
An article by the University of Pennsylvania has used the data from a study of 146 countries to shed light on the effects of democracy, state capacity and income inequality on the dynamics of epidemics. They found that in democratic nations, greater levels of transparency, public trust and accountability were associated with increased compliance in terms of public health measures and faster response times.
However, income inequality was found to have a profound effect on compliance – in many cases, those earning a lower income, especially those who are unable to access state supports, simply can’t afford to stay home and therefore, cannot always comply with social distancing. Unfortunately, as was the case in the UK, democracy isn’t always associated with strong state capacity, or indeed, the willingness to utilise it.
Despite its position as number two on the Global Health Security Index for pandemic readiness, conservative political forces in the UK bungled the response through its policies on healthcare and the public service, in addition to its prioritising economic interests and Brexit. Six months before the pandemic, the then-Prime Minister Theresa May abolished the “Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee” when a no-deal Brexit appeared to be a more threatening reality, resulting in the government shifting its focus significantly. The committee, which included senior cabinet ministers, could have resulted in a faster, more effective response, saving lives in the process.
Boris Johnson’s government and many others, Trump included, fetishise the “free market”, which leads to certain economic interests taking priority over a robust and coordinated state response. When the goal is to privatise public services and keep wages down; better pay, conditions and funding for the NHS and its workers would interfere with this goal and make it difficult for the Conservative government to outsource their workforces. Similarly, in the US, at a time when it is needed most, Trump has blocked access to new insurance applicants under the Affordable Care Act, leaving the most vulnerable in a desperately precarious position by increasing levels of inequality.
There have been many discussions about what should be prioritised in the emergency responses to the pandemic. Health professionals view saving lives as the absolute priority; this seems logical, but the public health measures put in place may also negatively impact the health of those with non-COVID-related illnesses who are unable or afraid to access health services. Others have spoken of their desire for the response to remain free from political interference; that government restrictions are too intrusive and reminiscent of “Big Government”. President Trump has stated that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem”, evidence that he views the crisis through the lens of political ambition. He has accused the Democrats of concocting this “coronavirus hoax” to damage a booming economy, which would affect his chances of re-election.