This article belongs to the debate » Power and the COVID-19 Pandemic
11 May 2021

A Stress Test for Politics: Insights from the Comparative Covid Response Project (CompCoRe) 2020

The whole world perceived the Covid-19 epidemic of 2020 as an emergency. State after state enacted extraordinary measures to limit personal freedom and curtail economic and social activity to a degree never experienced in peacetime, and never on such a colossal scale. Travel across national borders came to a virtual halt in the pandemic’s initial months, and even in early 2021 global air traffic was down more than 40 percent from its pre-pandemic level. Lockdowns kept most people homebound for months except on essential business. Schools closed and children lost access to teachers, playmates, and recreational opportunities. Restrictions intruded into the most intimate areas of life, separating parents from grown children, keeping couples from coming together, and leaving patients to die alone. Businesses suffered grievous losses, with impacts falling especially hard on small enterprises and on restaurants and hotels. With much of the world’s population under enforced isolation, mental health declined, social grievances intensified, and conspiracy theories took deeper root.

The CompCoRe study, an ongoing qualitative comparison of policy responses to Covid-19 in sixteen core countries and two affiliates, begun in April 2020, sought to identify and explain patterns of perceived success and failure in managing this multifaceted crisis. Our project concluded early on that this was a drama playing out simultaneously in three interlocking arenas: health, economy, politics. The virus seemed to find and target weaknesses not only in vulnerable human bodies but also in the economic and political infrastructures that sustain societies.

Early findings point to strong correlations between citizens’ sense of solidarity and the state’s ability to enact and enforce restrictive measures. Three broad—and dramatically different—patterns emerged over the first year of the pandemic, connecting policies and outcomes across national health, economic, and political systems. Some countries achieved a coherent response and significant degree of control over the situation in all or most of the three arenas. Other countries achieved basic policy consensus about how to proceed, although trying to stall the epidemic entailed significant economic hardship. In still a third group of countries, policy chaos prevailed, with extensive conflict over policy goals and measures in all three systems. The interim project report issued in January 2021 pointed to Taiwan as a paradigm case of a control country, Germany as a consensus country, and the United States (still in the Trump presidency) as a chaos country.

Pandemic Performance: Keeping Score

Instability is the pandemic’s most distinctive feature. As the virus spreads and mutates, economic conditions fluctuate and political winds blow unsteadily at best. Just as policymakers had to monitor and continually adapt to the pandemic, so too did those studying pandemic policy need to constantly reappraise the efforts to manage the unfolding crisis. Like CompCoRe, journalistic accounts often adopted a comparative perspective, but were given to instant scorecards, casting nations as leaders or laggards in some imagined race to control the unruly virus. Indicators of success and failure remained bewilderingly diverse and mercurial, with anything measurable seemingly fair game for the near-daily tallies offered by the news media: the number of infections, pressure on intensive care beds, case-fatality rates, total deaths, deaths by demographic categories, length of lockdowns, unemployment levels, GDP estimates, and recently the speed of vaccine rollout and the number of persons vaccinated. By some measures, powerful countries appear to have traded places over the course of the last year. China, where the virus got its deadly start, also achieved the quickest and most complete suppression of its spread. In the pandemic’s first phase, Germany was ahead in keeping infections and deaths relatively low and maintaining political consensus. In April 2021, gripped by a third wave, Germany’s vaccination rate fell behind the United States, whose initially hesitant vaccination rollout soon became the envy of Europe (though deaths per million in Germany remained much lower). At the same time, Covid-19 began surging in India after a period of relative calm, while Brazil faced ever greater political and public health chaos. Poorer countries vainly waited for vaccines while richer ones scrambled to satisfy their increasingly restive populations.

Yet, this score-keeping by the numbers – almost as if pandemic response is a kind of involuntary spectator sport – leaves much to be desired in a world yearning not to repeat the trauma of 2020. For one thing, framing pandemic management as an international competition does not explain why the same country fared better or worse in different stages of the crisis. Such superficial comparisons also fail to grapple with CompCoRe’s key insight, namely, that any serious assessment of policy efficacy must look not only at health impacts but also at impacts on politics and the economy, some of which may prove to be longer lasting and harder to cure than near-term control of the virus. Time after time, one refrain has come to the fore: why did countries with top rankings in such preparedness metrics as the Global Health Security Index perform worse on multiple indicators than many lower-ranked countries? Grappling with that question might hold more promise for the future of global pandemic management than weekly or monthly country rankings according to arbitrarily selected indicators.

Politics of Trust

One axis of difference that our study addresses, but that resists easy quantification, is the issue of trust. Trust is a factor that affects national performance in all three arenas of the Covid-19 crisis. It affects people’s willingness to heed health warnings, their confidence in economic resilience, and their allegiance to political leaders. As yet, however, trust has been narrowly construed in much public discourse, mainly as a matter of believing the scientific pronouncements of national health authorities.

We found a strong connection between trust in political institutions and trust in expertise. Unsurprisingly, control and consensus countries fared better in this respect than chaos countries. In the divisive political environment of the United States, for instance, public health experts and the mainstream media blamed the runaway infection and death rates on the Trump administration’s disregard for evidence and the public’s loss of trust in science. Donald Trump himself often flouted the advice of his own expert advisers, even when he came down with the disease. Many political commentators interpreted President Joseph R. Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election as a victory for science, but our research suggests that the outcome expressed a widespread disenchantment with a style of presidential politics that undermined faith in the government’s commitment to pandemic management.

Cross-national comparison tells a more nuanced story about the nature and role of trust during the pandemic. It suggests that the analytic starting point for understanding the phenomenon of trust has to be within national political systems and not in the technocratic domains of either health or economic expertise – let alone in some aggregated, survey-based index of public understanding of science. It is in the realm of politics that trusting relations are built among citizens and between citizens and the state. And those relations in turn can be mobilized with greater or lesser efficacy when the public is asked to follow the recommendations of health experts who are either advising the state or acting on the basis of their delegated sovereign authority.

Democracy under Fire

Our study further suggests that variations in public trust across countries can be traced to the diverse ways in which modernity’s social contract has been implemented in varied constitutional orders. We draw on decades of work in science and technology studies showing that modern societies have adopted de facto constitutional settlements in allowing experts to govern their lives. Key to these settlements are tacit delegations of power to knowledge-making institutions. Consequently, the exercise of state authority, and the production of what Timothy Mitchell among others has called state effects, frequently occurs through consensus-building or contention among experts. The rules of the game by which experts negotiate differences among themselves and seek to persuade wider publics of the merits of their arguments vary widely across countries. Indeed, these institutionalized modes of reasoning and reason-giving have proved sufficiently stable over time to serve as defining elements of a nation’s political culture, or its prevailing civic epistemology.

From the beginning of the crisis, national leaders in every country drew on prior understandings of how the state relates to citizens and vice versa, in other words, on deep-seated constitutional understandings of citizenship. The metaphors leaders deploy tell part of this story. A quick survey of our 16 countries showed that heads of state in 10 of them used war metaphors to rally their citizens, but with very different ideas of what their call to arms would inspire. In China, the epitome of a control country, appeal to a “People’s War” against the virus legitimated the military precision and totalizing sweep of the government’s virus eradication policy. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the war against the virus to India’s great war epic, the Mahabharata, thereby reinscribing his own standing as leader of the country’s Hindu nationalists. Countries that rarely referred to war, and hence did not frame the viral challenge in terms of a battle to be won, included states already endowed with a high degree of social cohesion: Austria, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Germany’s Angela Merkel did refer to World War II, but only to remind the nation of a historical period that had demanded solidarity and sacrifice in the face of an overwhelming challenge to established ways of life.

Policy contrasts across countries also underscore different underlying presumptions about the extent and nature of the authority delegated to the state and its health authorities. In both the Netherlands and Sweden, for example, citizens expected to retain some freedom to judge for themselves the rationality of proposed regulations. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte described his country’s initial ban on large public gatherings in March 2020 as an “intelligent lockdown,” meaning one that depended on citizens to understand why such measures were needed and to comply in order to avoid more drastic curtailments. Sweden, which stood out early on for refusing to lock down its economy, routinely employs the doctrine of proportionality in its public health decisions. Extreme curtailments of liberty are permitted only when the country actually is at war – and, notably, our Swedish research team reported that their political leaders never resorted to the discourse of war. Nonetheless, an early study suggested that levels of interpersonal and institutional trust rose in Sweden even when the country entered the acute phase of the pandemic in late summer of 2020.

In the United States, by contrast, commentators zoomed in on loss of trust in expertise as a phenomenon of intense social concern, citing resistance to public health guidelines such as mask wearing as evidence of denying science. Here again, our findings suggest that the interplay among the three arenas of health, economy, and politics was highly significant. Political polarization, already at historic highs, seeped into the assessment of the health risk from Covid-19. In March 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that only half as many Republicans (41%) as Democrats (82%) agreed that “the outbreak is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population as a whole.” Yet, roughly the same percentages of both parties (~82%) saw the pandemic as a major threat to the US economy. Unlike the virus, which seemed to devastate some regions while sparing others, shuttered businesses and lost jobs struck the entire country. People did not need to trust in mediating experts to feel these effects as serious. By the same token, even a revered scientist like Dr. Anthony Fauci could not neutralize the distrust of people whose friends and families were not sick, but who saw their economic futures teetering on the brink. Political polarization left even Dr. Fauci powerless to persuade loyal supporters of Donald Trump.

Our study suggests that loss of trust in expertise is best understood not as an independent variable that undermines rational public policy but as an indicator of a country’s capacity to hold together its constitutional settlement between knowledge and power in times of crisis. Countries with traditions of paternalistic or authoritarian government, such as Singapore and China, maintained (or, in China’s case, regained) public trust as long as they appeared to keep infections down and economies humming – even if some freedoms such as travel were sharply restricted. Countries with strong cultures of solidarity, like Germany and the Netherlands, also retained trust so long as leaders could persuade people that health measures were temporary and reasonable. By contrast, Brazil, a country in which politics rode roughshod over expert judgment, descended into prolonged chaos in health, economy, and politics. And trust also frayed dramatically in the United States, where expert judgment drawing solely on the cultural authority of science proved insufficient to offset the sharp political divisions that increasingly gripped the country.

As national and international authorities look to futures beyond Covid-19, a lesson emerging from our study is that they should revisit their institutional processes for integrating scientific and political consensus-building. If free citizens are unable to see how expertise is serving the collective good, they will sooner rebel against the experts than give up their independence. Just as a sound mind is said to require a sound body, so the coronavirus has shown that the credibility of public health expertise depends on the health of the body politic.