Can populism survive the pandemic?

Populism has undergone a sudden resurgence in the past years. Many have probably had an idea about the dangerous ideological factors that populism can have on democratic systems. Now, as the world continues to struggle with the global pandemic and all the other complex economic or social factors that fall in between, the true reality of populism is beginning to be “found out”. Controversial populist leaders such as India’s Narendra Modi or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have seen their approval ratings drop, as their respectful nations struggle with the pandemic. Are we going to see an end to such governance?

When the terms “populism” and “pandemic” get thrown around, Brazil sadly comes to mind. As the country struggles to keep up with the worst Coronavirus outbreak, Bolsonaro’s populist governance can be taken as a warning to the rest of the world. This anti-science, elitist, and iliberal outlook the populists tend to champion so much is proving more and more dangerous.

Medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco labelled such leaders “medical populists”. Political leaders who have risen to power and rule through populist methods that had lead them to:
– Downplay the pandemic
– Put less efforts into their responses (yet dramatize them)
– Assert their solutions (while they disregard scientific considerations);
– and in doing so, create divisions (within their own countries and with other countries).

During the early times of the pandemic, the chorus of similar populist leader speeches could be heard in various languages: “the virus is more or less a simple cold or flu”, “it will disappear in due time – as quickly as it ever arrived”, “only the weak are vulnerable, and the international reported number of cases are fake news”, “we’ve got the resources to handle it”, “mask-wearing, social distancing, and lockdowns aren’t necessary”, the list really just goes on.

As time went by, infection and death rates rapidly increased. It eventually became difficult for the populist leaders to really keep feeding this chorus they’ve been so adamant about. Many around the world gradually realized that they’d need to brace themselves in dealing with two kinds of threats. One being the virus, and the other being some questionable governance.

So there are two trends we’ll need to keep an eye on. The soaring COVID-19 infection/death rates and the populist leader favorability ratings. Trump’s reelection loss and the heavy declines of Bolsonaro and Modi’s leaderships are already signs of people realizing the true face of populism. While populist leaders have quite the knack of blaming outside factors instead of addressing the facts, the evidence is always going to be out there.

Interestingly enough, Brazil’s preparations for the pandemic were given a chance to have a headstart as it received an early warning about the virus. The first ever case of the Coronavirus in Latin America was reported in Brazil on the 26th of February 2020. Yet, Bolsonaro and his government officials shrugged off that warning. A move that got rid of such precious time. Ahead of the pandemic, it was reported that Bolsonaro had made funding cuts for universities and the government’s education and science ministries – cuts that rob it’s scientists and healthcare personnel of resources that it would soon need to study the rise of infections and variants that appear soon after.

Over in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also known to have dismissed numerous scientific advisers’ warnings about the possibility of new variants and the dangers of a second wave. Warnings also included the dangers of permitting large religious gatherings that had been the focus in the country’s growth of infections. In Hungary, known populist leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban also currently faces a downfall of support as the country’s mortality rate is at almost nearly twice the rate of the EU entirely. Handling the pandemic poorly, such as reopening the country at “the worst possible time”, Hungary’s medical journals have also reportedly discussed whether the Prime Minister’s responses was far “deadlier than the virus itself”.

However, some populist leaders such as the UK’s Boris Johnson have instead come in support of facts and advice from his medical advisers. Argentina’s Peronist President Alberto Fernandez has seen his approval ratings go up as many refer to his response as positive. And then you also have Philippene leader Rodrigo Duterte who was quoted last year to have warned lockdown violators that they’d risk being shot at. It has to be noted that “populism” is a diverse aspect and one that stretches into several different corners of the political sphere.

Research by the LSE found that right-wing and left-wing political leaders and their parties had responded in very different ways to the pandemic. Right-wing populists in Europe identified new lines of conflict, often putting an emphasis on nationalism and thus creating opposition of “us, the people” against other member states or the EU. Left leaning populist parties focused on creating discourse towards the lack of public investment in healthcare systems or highlighted the dangers of neoliberalism.

While “hardman” leaders remain quite adamant on their policies that disregard a huge social aspect, it can be safe to suggest that COVID-19’s next victim may well be the common type of populism we’ve come to hear on the news for the wrong reasons.

As it stays, it’s become further apparent that a responsible and moral leadership model is the only way to ever really maneuver a nation’s way around a crisis. To quote German Chancellor Angela Merkel,

“Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits”.

And it’s those limits that we’ll all have to pay close attention to in the coming years to come.



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