How COVID changed world politics

APTOPIX Biden Weather Turbulent times: President Joe Biden at Andrews Air Force Base on January 3. Biden's popularity has tanked because of the recalcitrant nature of the virus | AP

In February 2020, when Gallup released its regular polling data, the United States was in the middle of an election season. President Donald Trump enjoyed an approval rating of 49 per cent, his handling of the economy had 63 per cent support and national satisfaction among Americans was at 45 per cent, the highest since 2005. The Democrats were in the middle of a fractious primary race. Trump, it seemed, was on his way to a second term. But that was not to be. 

Only 20 African countries have vaccinated at least 10 per cent of their population, a target the World Health Organization had set for September.
62% vaccination rate in the US
97% of all antibiotics in the US comes from China
7% Overall vaccination rate in Afriva


Covid-19 has been unkind to most right-wing populists, and Trump was no exception. As the virus spread across the US, Trump downplayed the danger, dissed experts and promoted dodgy cures—he even suggested injecting disinfectants. Trump initially believed Chinese President Xi Jinping who told him that Covid-19 would go away in the summer because of the heat. But when the virus beat the heat, he said the pandemic was a Chinese conspiracy, accused the World Health Organisation of collusion with Beijing and cut off funding to the organisation. He, however, was reluctant to implement social distancing, mask mandates and an effective lockdown. On November 3, Americans voted him out, making him the tenth president who failed to win a second term.

Christopher Devine, presidential elections expert at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said Trump’s messaging on the virus cost him the election. “Had he demonstrated competent leadership on the pandemic and focused on promoting his administration's economic record, he would have fared better,” said Devine.

Although Joe Biden, who narrowly beat Trump, ushered in a much more robust system and got a $1.9 trillion relief bill passed to tackle the pandemic, the arrival of new variants like Omicron is derailing recovery efforts. The US reported more than a million Covid-19 cases on January 3, a new record for daily cases. The growing polarisation of American politics is also making things worse as a large number of conservatives, including the Republican leadership, oppose vaccine mandates and other preventive measures proposed by the Biden administration. The US has been able to vaccinate only 62 per cent of the population, a low figure for a developed country. Biden’s approval rating has tanked to around 40 per cent, and there is speculation about Trump’s return in 2024. 

While Trump mulls a possible return—something never attempted in modern American history—Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, known as the “Trump of the tropics”, appears to be in serious trouble. In October, Brazilian senators recommended filing criminal charges against the right-wing populist, including crimes against humanity, for his inept handling of the pandemic. On Bolsonaro’s watch, Brazil recorded the second highest pandemic death toll in the world, (more than 6 lakh) after the United States (more than 8.5 lakh). Politically, he is in a precarious position; elections are due in October, and his approval ratings have slipped to a record low of 19 per cent. 

Another strongman who is facing a precipitous fall in popularity is Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to official data, Russia’s pandemic death toll stands at over three lakh, with more than a crore infections. Russia also has the highest Covid mortality rate among countries in Europe and the second-highest in Asia, after India. Putin’s popularity rating fell to its lowest level in over two decades during the pandemic as he retreated into a bio-bubble and delegated responsibilities to regional governments. Russia’s vaccine strategy, too, failed as the Sputnik V vaccine was introduced in haste, a year before clinical trials were completed. Even Putin waited till last March to get himself vaccinated. No wonder only about 40 per cent of the Russians are fully vaccinated.

Moscow-based political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told The New Yorker that Putin was unable to impose a vaccine mandate or an effective quarantine regime because he was unsure whether his orders would be followed by the public. “The most dangerous thing of all is to give an order that won’t be followed,” said Schulmann. 

Yet, Putin is known for his survival skills. The brewing crisis on the Ukrainian border, where he has deployed more than a lakh soldiers, could boost his popularity. Most Russians consider Ukraine as part of the historical heart of the Russian state, and acting tough on Ukraine is perhaps the easiest way for Putin to shore up his sagging ratings.


Even as right-wing strongmen are being bruised by the pandemic, the left and centre-left parties have made an impressive return in many countries. In Latin America, Honduras, Peru and Chile elected left-wing presidents in 2021, while rightist incumbents appear vulnerable in Brazil and Colombia.

In Europe, Germany welcomed back a centre-left coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the September elections after 16 years of conservative rule by Angela Merkel. With Social Democrats in power in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, the entire Scandinavian region is governed by centre-left parties for the first time in 20 years. Down south, Spain and Portugal have centre-left coalition governments, while in Italy, the centre-left is a key supporter of Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

One of the major reasons behind the resurgence of the left is the fact that states have taken the lead in dealing with the pandemic. It has made “big government” and “state paternalism” popular once again. The economic recovery plans are also led by states.  The European Union is spending €806.9 billion, a major initiative which may have saved the group from unravelling.

The left-wing political platform has always demanded money for social welfare measures and for the working class, and the battle against the pandemic has made it look attractive. It has also propelled to the forefront the importance of universal health care, employment security, reasonable wages and welfare payments—all major campaign planks of the left. Moreover, the pet themes of the far right, such as illegal immigration, ethnonationalism and fiscal conservatism, are finding much less resonance among the voters during the time of a public health crisis.

As pointed out in a study published by the American Political Science Review, when a catastrophe strikes, voters embark on a “flight of safety”, abandoning extremist parties and policies. In Covid-ravaged Europe and Latin America, it was the centre-left that turned out to be the beneficiary of this flight. In Canada and New Zealand, centre-left incumbents Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern have won reelections, banking heavily on their pandemic response. As governments introduce stricter measures to curb the latest wave of the pandemic, however, protests have intensified across the EU, especially in Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Even in the United Kingdom, where the Conservative Party has been in power since 2010, the opposition Labour Party has been showing some signs of revival. Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, said that after Brexit, Johnson’s premiership had been dominated by the pandemic. “It initially boosted his support, then took a dive as Covid went on and on and he had to reimpose restrictions and his government looked incompetent, but the success of the UK’s vaccine acquisition and roll-out boosted his political fortunes. But that effect has started to fade and his government is now trailing in the polls, as the prime minister is seen to have mishandled a series of scandals,” she said. Johnson’s staff held a Christmas party in 2020 at a time the government was advocating social distancing. Johnson himself was seen attending a party at his official residence. While his approval rating has plummeted to 24 per cent, the Labour has taken a nine-point lead, its biggest margin in the last eight years. Johnson even suffered a major rebellion from within his party as 99 Tory MPs voted against his proposal to impose further pandemic restrictions. 


Although recent figures indicate that global trade and capital flows have returned to pre-pandemic levels, the absolute faith in outsourcing and in market forces could come under further scrutiny. For instance, a study by the US department of commerce has found that 97 per cent of all antibiotics in the US came from China. In a post-pandemic world, no US president is likely to let the situation continue. Moreover, US policy makers are unlikely to miss the fact that during the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Germany banned the export of protective medical equipment, such as masks and gloves, even to friendly neighbours like Switzerland and Austria. Despite a major diplomatic spat, Germany refused to lift the ban. 

Covid has upended global supply chains. As The New York Times recently observed, a quarantine in the port of Los Angeles which stopped the loading of soybeans from Iowa has led to an animal feed shortage in Indonesia. Similarly, a growing demand for television sets in Canada has resulted in the lockdown of car factories in South Korea and Japan because the television assembly units used up available semiconductor chips. A post-pandemic world could explore more onshore options and could rewrite the rules of globalisation. 


In 2008, after an earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province killing around 70,000 people, prime minister Wen Jiabao wrote on a school blackboard in Beichuan, the epicentre of the earthquake, “Disasters regenerate a nation”. China’s response to the pandemic, too, has been on similar lines. Shocked by the initial dissent and protests, the government has been portraying the fight against the virus as a nation-building exercise. 

It even paid tribute to Li Wenliang, the doctor who warned about early Covid infections in Wuhan. After Li’s warning became viral on social media, he was reprimanded by the local police. But Chinese authorities were surprised to see the kind of popular support he enjoyed after he succumbed to Covid in February 2020. Soon, a special team was sent to Wuhan which exonerated Li and held local police officers responsible. Li was subsequently co-opted as a martyr by the state.

The official narrative from Beijing is that associating China with the virus is a conspiracy by the west to shift blame and mask its ineptitude. President Xi said by taming the virus China demonstrated the superiority of its political system as against the struggling western democracies. “The demand for swift and centralised response to the pandemic, which dramatically enhanced state power, has come as a boon for nationalist leaders like Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to accumulate more powers and legitimacy,” said Niranjan Sahoo, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. It came against the backdrop of the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary and Xi consolidating his absolute control over the party and the government. China is still trying to achieve zero Covid by imposing even stricter measures as it prepares for the Winter Olympics in February and the 20th Communist Party Congress in October when Xi is likely to begin an unprecedented third term in office. 


On November 27, the South African ministry of foreign affairs protested the latest travel ban imposed on it, complaining that the country was being punished for discovering Omicron, the new Covid-19 variant. “This ban is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” said the statement.

Painful jab: A vaccination camp in Zimbabwe. As resources are stretched thin, Africa is finding it hard to tackle the pandemic | Getty Images Painful jab: A vaccination camp in Zimbabwe. As resources are stretched thin, Africa is finding it hard to tackle the pandemic | Getty Images

No other continent has faced as much trouble as Africa did from the pandemic. Only 20 African countries have vaccinated at least 10 per cent of their population, a target the WHO had set for September. The overall vaccination rate is an abysmal 7 per cent. As health care resources are stretched thin, Africa is finding it hard to treat and rehabilitate Covid cases. Testing itself is difficult because kits are expensive and inaccessible. An even bigger worry is the unavailability of vaccines. Only 1 per cent of all the vaccines administered in Africa are manufactured locally.

India and South Africa mooted a proposal in October 2020 to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines. Although the move was supported by the US and nearly 100 other countries, it has been blocked by the UK and European Union. “The refusal to waive the IP rights is the prime reason behind the shortage of medical products as it prevents the scaling up production through the diversification of manufacturing base. This act of placing the profit of pharma companies above people's health pushes the people of Africa to peril,” said K.M. Gopakumar, legal adviser for the Third World Network, an international research and advocacy organisation. “This defies any logic of public health and has resulted in inequitable access, which is contributing to the emergence of new variants like Omicron. This is what the world needs to be wary about in 2022.”