Are epidemics political events? And is the response to the recent one driven by an attempt to mitigate its economic impact? Many commentators find fault with government response and either point a finger at administrative ineffectiveness or political incompetence. It could very well be that an issue like a pandemic reflects on systemic failings and should not be associated to the failings of any one actor. Events with a global impact, such as this pandemic, force political systems to respond. For COVID the impact is often measured in terms of economic disruption. Global warming, for instance, is a case where a response seems to be an option rather than a necessity, and therefore often relegated as a priority. Politicians response (or delayed response) on COVID I believe to be a reflection of our political institutions and their transformation under an economic logic. The one constant of the current crisis seems to be its impact on economic performance.
Back of envelope calculations suggest that some states have done better than others in protecting their citizens. The Global Change Data Lab and Oxford University publish data in real time tracking the progress of the epidemic. They make for a sober reading. Italy and Spain have about 250 deaths per million inhabitants, while other southern EU states like Portugal and Greece currently record a 1/10th and 1/40th of that rate. It is too early to predict the next stage in an epidemic that may very well have multiple infection waves but differences in impact are tempting to associate to different policy choices.
The most common claim in news reporting of COVID is that many political leaders have failed to take seriously the threat posed by this epidemic. Or have failed to recognise its implications for the welfare of citizens. Political response was not always guided by epidemiology, virology, public health capacity or concern for citizens welfare but political considerations and an economic calculus. The range of responses in different states reflects, of course, the level of competence of each administration but also their strategic horizon. Administrations with a long term horizon appear to have been quicker to act.
Previous epidemics have elicited a “weaponized” narrative akin to language used in war and conflict. I suspect the same will happen this time. But political actors currently project a more insidious discourse. This time it is about the economy. It is possible that this has gained traction because of the recency of the last recession. Possibly we worry more about economic growth than collective welfare. “Pandemic economics” has been reflected in serious commentary of a pending deep recession, maybe not surprisingly by Nouriel Roubini. The Harvard Business Review makes a case for a supply side shock and the Financial Times for a demand side one as they ponder the lasting aftermath of the crisis. If, as seems likely, the policy response will mirror the Chinese example of universal citizen monitoring, certain civil rights will be challenged.
From the limited vantage of the early stages of this global pandemic I am concerned that economics is driving politics. And that political institutions could be transformed as a result. The legacy of the policy response to the pandemic could lead to our acquiescence for digital contact tracing as a necessary evil. Since pandemics are periodic, another one could be just around the corner, and universal surveillance will help wage a “pandemic economic war” ….
And some interesting links on epidemiology (and networks) research that could impact future policy:
- Understanding the challenge of the epidemic by Dr Christian Drosten the virologist in charge of the German response.
- COVID modeling research
- medrxiv paper on social mixing and contagion Klepac et al
- archiv paper on social media on COVID Cinelli et al
- archiv paper on the effect of meso network structures to epidemic propagation St-Onge et al
- London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine math modelling project on COVID
- Social contacts and mixing in PLOS medicine
- COVID open data from the Lancet