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The Politics of Coronavirus

The Politics of Coronavirus

Hosted by Polis convenor Ben Ishakan, five ADI members spoke about the response to COVID-19 in five countries, exploring the political impacts and implications.

Originally scheduled as an in-person event, the fast-changing nature of public meetings over the last fortnight meant that the March 23 Polis seminar, “The Politics of Coronavirus”, was ADI’s first public online-only event.

Hosted by Polis convenor Ben Ishakan, five ADI members spoke about the response to COVID-19 in five countries, exploring the political impacts and implications.  

The seminar aptly began with a focus on China. A/Prof Chengxin Pan outlined China’s early response to the outbreak of COVID-19, with a focus on how the regime type may have influenced the response. Though the response in the earliest days after the first reported case of the virus at Wuhan Seafood Market was left largely to local government to manage, the central government became involved after about 10 days. Though the worst of the infections remained in Wuhan, signalling the spread of the virus was somewhat contained, the Chinese government has been widely criticised for its response, and the subsequent, huge numbers of sick and dead. However, as A/Prof Pan noted, the USA has been accused of similar failings in its response, with cover-ups, delayed action and a continuing steep increase in case numbers. While A/Prof Pan cautioned against equating the two nations, he did note that one could not say that a totalitarian regime or democratic regime was better at responding to such an event, as both have clearly been demonstrated to be flawed.

Dr Danielle Chubb then spoke about North Korea’s response. As Dr Chubb noted, most of what is said about North Korea is informed speculation, but it appears that there have been no official reports of coronavirus in the country, although alternative reports suggest there may have been small outbreaks. North Korea made strong early moves to prevent spread of the virus, closing borders and demanding the population wear facemasks. In fact images coming out of North Korea earlier this year had obviously been doctored, with facemasks digitally added to people. However more recently, photos have emerged of Kim Jong-un and others not wearing facemasks – likely to send strong internal messaging that North Korea has quashed any threat of the virus. Under a dictatorship, a country can easily control its population and implement severe restrictions, making it easier to implement movement and operation constraints than in democratic societies. This is probably crucial in a country like North Korea to avoid widespread infection of coronavirus, as medical experts have suggested that there is very little, perhaps no accurate testing capability and inadequate healthcare facilities. At a time of global threat when communities and nations are working together to stop the threat, it is worth noting that North Korea graciously accepted messages of well-wishing from the USA and South Korea, but soon after demonstrated commitment to its nuclear program, undertaking nuclear testing, reinforcing the idea that despite current events, nothing is changing.

Iran was the next focus, a country that has been hard hit by coronavirus, not least, Dr James Barry suggested, because of its slow response due to poor organisation, neglect and religious ideology. The theological idea that you cannot get sick from a holy site or object meant that religious sites were open and busy and pilgrimages were still occurring long after the infection rates had begun to escalate. Religious political influence and public distrust of the government probably worsened the situation in Iran, with the government unwilling to impose restrictions and the people less willing to take them up. Iran has publicly rejected any help from the US and even accused the US of developing and spreading the virus, however Dr Barry suggested that there may in fact be some behind the scenes dealings, with Iran seeking US assistance.

Dr Matteo Vergani then spoke on Italy, “I’m the first person to talk about a democracy here,” he said “And I don’t have good news.” The rates of infection and death in Italy have been devastating and Dr Vergani suggested that this is at least in part due to structural effects of Italy’s approach to dealing with COVID-19. In Italy, the regions have great autonomy over healthcare and there have been clashes between the regional and central government approaches. This has been exacerbated perhaps by the conflicting ideologies of the centre-left Italian government and some of the right-wing local governments in the regions, including Lombardi – the site of the worst outbreak. In Lombardi, the numbers of critically ill have far exceeded beds, doctors, space and equipment. The older average age of the Lombardi population has often been cited as a reason for the extent of the outbreak, but this is just one factor. Social distancing came late and some of the choices made by hospitals early on were bad: only symptomatic people were tested and asymptomatic doctors who tested positive were allowed to keep working, leading to high rates of contamination in hospitals. Economic policies were prioritised over health and even now restrictions to the operating of businesses have not been as broad as in less severely-hit countries. Despite, or because of the outbreak, Italy’s president’s approval rating as gone from 40% to 70%, whereas the right-wing Northern League party has gone from 35% to 28%. This perhaps reflects national solidarity, but there is anxiety too, which may mean that once the immediate health threat passes and people are suffering the economic aftereffects, people will be looking for another scapegoat, they will be vulnerable to increased hatred from online misinformation.

Finally, Dr Samantha Balaton-Chrimes discussed the response to COVID-19 in Kenya. Despite very low infection rates so far, Kenya has taken swift action to stave off widespread infection, shutting down schools and open air markets, shifting restaurants and cafes to takeaway only and closing borders. Some of these measures were controversial and perhaps more so because of public distrust in the government. But Kenyans are incredibly vulnerable because of the poverty levels and lack of adequate healthcare in many of its counties. Moreover, social distancing is logistically difficult. Thus an immediate response was necessary to prevent a severe outbreak. However Kenya and other African countries do have an advantage over countries in the Global North. Having faced other epidemics, they have more experience in public health, are good on information dissemination and willing to take drastic measures. Hopefully Kenya can avoid the experience of some of the world’s worst-hit countries.

It is no doubt too early to know what the political impact of COVID-19 will be for individual countries and the world, but this brief insight into the recent and current events across the world gives another perspective to the situation we are all now dealing with.

Watch the full video here:


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