How Populists are Wasting Valuable Time in the Corona Crisis
Denial, playing down the facts, playing the blame game - the familiar pattern of populist politics keeps rolling despite the corona crisis. But the virus won’t be halted by such antics and long-neglected healthcare systems look set to feel its force.
A pandemic, as we have learned in these last days and weeks of the corona crisis, demands resolute political action and unpopular measures: ranging from event bans to the closure of educational establishments to border controls and curfews. Public and economic life is brought to a standstill and citizens’ rights are deeply constrained - and nobody knows for how long. What it means to govern in the Corona crisis was recently summed up by Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder in a television interview: "We always act on the recommendation of the virologists (…). I don’t want us to hesitate for a single day if we get the advice to act now." This is the only way, the hounded politicians hope, to prevent the virus from continuing to spread unchecked and soon overburdening health care systems.
In his daily corona podcast, Christian Drosten, chief virologist at Berlin’s Charité hospital, praised Germany’s federal policy: "I really must say that our Health Minister is allowing himself to be informed and actively consulting experts." Many politicians in Europe and other industrialized countries are acting in the same way, adhering to the assessments and advice of academic experts to deal with this global health crisis. Most - but by no means all.
Donald Trump’s "alternative" corona facts
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) comparative international study investigates, among other things, the extent to which the governments of EU and OECD countries heed the advice of non-governmental experts in their decision-making process. Not surprisingly, populist governments in particular tend to score poorly in this ranking.
Donald Trump’s team, which is well known for presenting "alternative facts", scored only 4 out of a possible 10 points in its ranking in 2019 for its acceptance of expert advice, three points less than under Barack Obama’s government. The authors of the SGI country report on the United States write: “As with the role of strategic planning and other expert units within government, the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress have drastically subordinated or ignored sources of independent academic or research-based advice”.
During his state visit to India at the end of February, the US president said that the corona outbreak in his country was under control and that the problem would disappear. There were already 50 proven corona infections of US citizens and Nancy Messonnier, head of the responsible US authority, the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned that it was no longer a question of whether the outbreak would happen, but when, and how many people would fall seriously ill. Not even three weeks later, we know that neither Trump’s boastful ignoring of scientific predictions, nor his finger-pointing at the Europeans and Chinese helped stop the virus spread. Once he could no longer deny the problem he became visibly nervous. Even the America First strategy does not seem to work in the face of the global challenge: There are reports that the White House’s offer to secure exclusive rights to a vaccine has fallen flat.
Hungarian government abolishes independent research
Nor does Viktor Orban think much of holding discussions with scientists. In the SGI ranking on the influence of independent expertise on government action, Hungary comes in last with only 2 out of 10 possible points. The SGI’s country experts state: "The Orban governments have shown no interest in seeking independent and knowledge-based advice and have alienated many leading experts who initially sympathized with them politically.” In its rejection of independent research, the right-wing national government goes even further than just ignoring experts. In a veritable culture war, it has succeeded in silencing critical scientists and taking control of scientific research institutions itself.
Although Orban was quick to impose travel and event bans during the corona crisis, he then devoted himself primarily to finding foreign scapegoats instead of using the time to bolstering the country’s health system ahead of the corona outbreak. In fact, the corona pandemic could become a political ordeal for Orban given the Hungarian healthcare system’s long-standing role as the EU’s problem child. The shortage of healthcare staff is high, both general practitioners and nurses, in particular in poorer areas. According to the authors of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s SGI 2019 country report on Hungary, "health care has been one of the most conflict-ridden policy fields in Hungary. A continuing series of scandals have made this issue a major Fidesz policy weakness and a subject of large-scale public protest".
According to the study, the Hungarian health care system suffers from the fact that no ministry deals directly with health care issues. Hungary also has one of the lowest health budgets of OECD countries, only spending around 50 percent of average per capita spending on health. This is one of the reasons for the widespread emigration of doctors and nurses to the West, where they can earn considerably more. In some hospitals, entire departments have already had to close due to a shortage of doctors.
It has to be hoped that the pandemic will not affect Hungary as severely as other European countries, because its impact could be even more devastating for health workers and the general population than in Italy or Great Britain. Meanwhile an overstretched Europe, in which every nation is battling its own corona crisis behind closed borders, will hardly be in a position to lend a helping hand.