It is fascinating to see how different leaders choose to deal with a crisis like the coronavirus outbreak. Let’s compare three approaches: the “Populists,” the “Believers” and the “Proactives.”
Solutions put forward by populist leaders who mobilised “the crowd” to be elected in the first place make sense if you think about how they often come to power:
– With a promise of economic prosperity for those already struggling;
– Feeding fear and division whilst providing a clear enemy to blame;
– Using simple narratives that are easy to understand, remember and rally behind.
The initial natural response to a crisis like coronavirus from populist leaders has been:
- Downplay the severity to limit economic damage
Social distancing, and closing schools and businesses have a significant impact on a country´s economy: not too convenient for a populist leader who came into power by promising economic prosperity.
Examples include the UK government sticking to their advice to go on with life as usual but wash your hands more frequently and longer than normal, until well into a contamination level that became impossible to reverse. Donald Trump claimed it’s like a regular flu and it will “go away” in April.
- Blame foreigners
The Trump administration kept talking about the “Chinese virus.” Viktor Orban in Hungary was quick to blame the outbreak on mass migration – even though the first confirmed case in Hungary was a Hungarian woman who likely got infected in Italy. He has now taken sole command of the country under extraordinary powers.
- Use a simple narrative and convenient information or opinions
The UK government´s chief science advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, disagreed with the approach taken by neighbouring countries (yet another symptom of populism) and proclaimed “herd immunity” to be the best solution. Rather than contain the spread of the virus, his plan was to aim for a contamination of 60% of the population so most people became immune, and the wider spread would be manageable. Right or wrong – it’s a simple story and seemed to make sense.
Though where the populist approach worked so well in other situations, it was less effective in this health crisis. At some point the people in power realized the rising number of infections was going to overwhelm the hospitals. This would reflect badly on public perception of how the crisis was being managed, and it was time for a U-turn to a containment strategy. Populist leaders started pleading to the public to take it seriously and introduced similar containment measures as other countries had much earlier in the outbreak. Again, the US and the UK are prime examples, and damage control will be these governments’ main focus for the foreseeable future.
The build-up of overwhelming evidence to the contrary made it difficult for leaders to continue misleading people, or encourage a blame-game. In general, this global pandemic appears to have generated more solidarity than xenophobia as crowds reasserted their more natural identities. Many people empathised with Italians singing from their balconies and windows, rather than somehow held them accountable for the worst infection levels in Europe.
Though there have been exceptions. British panic shoppers thought little of depriving low income customers of adequate basic necessities while they loaded up with more than they could sometimes wheel out of the supermarket in one trip. People carrying on as usual had to be banned from Miami beaches and Australia’s Bondi Beach in Sydney. A London Royal Park is locked after too many people ignored instructions to stop congregating and go home. Thankfully these examples are not the norm and crowd-sense generally prevails.
It’s not only populist leaders who bet on herd immunity. I live in Sweden where we have surprisingly few containment measures. Schools remain open (although higher education continues online) and people still eat at restaurants. There are general recommendations to wash our hands and work from home if possible – but not much more. People are not tested unless they display severe symptoms. So why are Swedish hospitals not overloaded?
Japan is another example of temperate measures without resulting in the kind of pressure on the medical system and mortality rates we are seeing in other countries. How have these two vastly different countries, 8,000 kms apart and not run by populists, managed to stick to a herd immunity policy without the extent of tragedy seen elsewhere?
One explanation could be both societies rely on a high level of civic responsibility deeply ingrained in the national culture. There is a general appreciation of measures that benefit the wider community and a greater willingness to make personal sacrifices for the sake of society as a whole. In Sweden, social distancing is facilitated by financial support from the government if anyone’s job is temporarily affected. For the Japanese, taking their already high degree of personal hygiene to yet another level in order not to infect fellow citizens was helped by simple government actions like providing disinfectants everywhere.
A third category of response is being conducted through greater use of technology and authority to get on top, and stay on top of the virus. This involves mass testing, determined tracking down of the contacts made by any coronavirus carrier, and strict self-isolation and quarantine.
Singapore recognized the importance of being prepared from the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, and had tests ready from the moment the first case was detected (January 20, 2020). Within a week, tests were available at all major hospitals for everyone with symptoms. Everyone in quarantine checks in through an sms link several times a day. If random physical enforcement checks reveal any cheating it could result in high fines or prison sentences.
The Singapore example shows successful containment without major implications for those who are not infected or have been close to someone who is, nor on key functions of its society. Meanwhile, they were prepared to provide proper care to those who tested positive, without draconian measures on society as a whole as in most European countries. Then again, the invasion of personal privacy deployed in Singapore may be a hard sell in Europe. Community and society needs have been prioritized over individual liberty.
Time Will Tell
When it comes to containment or herd immunity, it remains to be seen what the better strategy is. There are things to say for both. However, late action due to economic priorities, convenient simplified narratives and attempts to divide communities with blame on others is bound to be less effective and dangerous for everyone within and beyond the borders of any country.