Why right-wing populist leaders are botching Covid

Worldwide the countries struggling most to contain Covid are ones led by right-wing, populist, male leaders. We explore why.

Video: YouTube/The Guardian

Like many of you, my New Years Eve was spent at home. I was with my mum and sister and it was great. Personally New Years Eve is often anti-climactic as the pressure to have a Project-X level experience are never met. Scrolling through Instagram and WhatsApp though, I did feel a slight tinge of jealousy watching my Dad and extended family in Cameroon as well as my friends in Nigeria attend parties and nightclubs for the countdown to 2021. At the time of writing this the Covid-19 death toll in the U.K. (defined as death for any reason within 28 days of a positive Covid test result) is reported by the BBC as being 78,508. The case rate, infection rate and death rate are rising steadily with the pressure on NHS frontline workers reaching insurmountable heights. Government officials and right-wing media outlets would have you believe that the "unprecedented" nature of Covid-19 means the government can't be held responsible for the uphill battle the country faces to contain the virus. This is not remotely true. In Cameroon for example there have been 448 reported deaths amongst a population of over 26 million people. To put this in to perspective the U.K.'s death toll of 78'508 amongst a population of 66 million means that roughly 0.12% of the U.K. population have died of Covid-19 whereas in Cameroon the percentage is around  0.0017%. If Covid-19 affected all countries equally, was uncontainable and transcended government strategy - there could not be a discrepancy of roughly 69 times less fatalities in a so called "developing country".

So why are some countries handling the virus so catastrophically compared to others? I'm not an epidemiologist so I can't comment on the science, but as someone with a politics and communications background I can confidently say that right-wing populism is a huge factor. Populism is defined as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. It is not a strategy that is specific to right-wing parties or left-wing parties. Labour's self described "people powered" Momentum movement is a populist movement insofar as it aims to mobilise the disenfranchised working class. Similarly Stephen Yaxley-Lennon adopting the persona of "Tommy Robinson" who's always pictured at the football, in the pub and wearing football fan "clobber" is an attempt to align himself with the white-British working class. It's not the political ideology that defines populism, but the approach. Funnily enough, populism is perhaps most easily explained by an episode of Family Guy called Tea Peter  in which Peter's father in law Carter Pewterschmidt masquerades as "Joe Workingman" to lobby against environmental regulations.

So what makes right-wing populism particularly dangerous in fighting the virus and what proof is there that this is the case? Brazil led by Jair Bolsanaro, the Philippines led the Rodrigo Duterte, the United States led by Donald Trump and the U.K. led by Boris Johnson ("led" being used very loosely here) are all suffering the affects of Covid-19 disproportionately compared to surrounding countries. They all rose to power spouting inflammatory discriminatory language. According to a report by the London School of Economics Bolsanaro's government have deemed individual state imposed public health measures to be political insubordination. Thus making the approach to tackling Covid-19 a partisan political issue. Not dissimilar to the anti-mask rhetoric espoused by Donald Trump or Boris Johnson's early boasts about shaking hands with everyone on a hospital's Covid ward, shortly before contracting the virus himself. This is where the role of right-wing populist ideology becomes relevant. Branding yourself as a politician who is the antidote to some vague overarching establishment means that you always have to appear to be contrarian to maintain authenticity. If you just go along with whatever the WHO, scientists or the liberal media tell you - are you really the uncontrollable man of the people you purport to be? No. Notions of freedom and self actualisation are crucial to this constructed political identity, particularly in the United States, where the "my body my choice" rhetoric is bellowed loudly by citizens exercising their perceived constitutional right to ignore medical science and not wear masks or obey lockdown rules. A level of body autonomy rarely attributed to women who want safe abortions or transgender people funnily enough. Filipinos are reportedly frustrated at Duterte's lack of strategy as they face their biggest economic downturn in 30 years. Unlike the United States there isn't ideological division about whether science is real. With no social division to hide within the storm of, his lack of competence is exposed. That is the problem with playing dirty and thriving in mudslinging, when the dust settles you are left stained and exposed. 

 As we are now seeing; convincing the general public they shouldn't trust any authority figures because they're all corrupt, but rather put their trust solely in you, doesn't allow you to follow the lead of other leaders who might be handling things better. After seeing the rising death toll in Spain the U.K. kept it's borders open to allow Athletico Madrid fans enter the country for a Champion's League tie against Liverpool and Cheltenham went ahead despite the mass crowds it incurred. Earlier in this piece I made it clear that populism is not the product of right-wing ideology, but rather an approach. This is important because this next section will explain why I believe right-wing ideology in particular, when mixed with populism bodes badly for leadership through a pandemic. One of the guiding principles of conservative ideology is the principle of "laissez-faire" which is French for "leave alone". Little government intervention and leaving people to get on with it. This can be seen in conservative policies like low taxation for example. In principle this is fair enough. Paired with populism however, the principle of limiting governmental intervention on the basis that institutions are corrupt elites, then creates public distrust in any widespread government strategy. The prime example being the prominence of anti-vaxxers who believe the Pfizer vaccine is a plot to control everyone. It is no exaggeration to say right-wing populism is directly at odds with science as Bolsanaro continues to  encourage large public gatherings, still meets people without wearing a mask whilst promoting the use of unproven medicines. More recently, he has even went so far discourage future vaccinations. The death toll in Brazil is over 200'000, his reassurance to those concerned? "We can't be a country of faggots". As much as everyone (not me) seems to love these men because they "tell it like it is", are not mired by political correctness and stand up against liberal elites - boisterousness, pride and an unwillingness to listen and co-operate are not useful traits in adult situations. Britain's fixation in embodying "war time spirit" with masturbatory musings of the valour of wars gone by is aptly illustrated in Posh Boys: How Public Schools Ruin Britain by Robert Verkaik and we can see in real time how the colonial arrogance of our politicians and right-wing media outlets has taken the place of pragmatism. A piece published in the Daily Mail by Johnathan Chadwick contained the headline "War on coronavirus: Germans don't use WW2 rhetoric to describe the pandemic response because they associate it with loss" with the subheading "German media instead favours more scientific language".  I would argue that their use of scientific language is more likely because an epidemic is best combatted scientifically. 

To summarise: vaccination rollouts look promising and Covid-19 and lockdown as we know it will end eventually. Even so the scale of human life lost, loss of livelihood and economic challenges that are on the horizon mean we will be feeling the effects of how our governments have handled this for decades to come. Politicians and right-wing media will try their best to de-politicise the issue and I personally have already deleted Twitter to escape the inescapable moronic cries of "Boris is doing his best", "no one could have predicted this" and everyone's personal favourite "Imagine how bad things would've been under Corbyn". A pandemic is not unprecedented after a year. Maybe the right-wing populist leaders of the world genuinely did do their best? Who knows. It doesn't matter because their best was nowhere near good enough.

Article written by Martyn Ewoma


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