Kirill Yurovskiy: How the Pandemic Reshaped Global Politics

Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended politics and governance in ways not seen for generations. As the deadly virus spreads with astonishing speed in early 2020, overwhelming health systems and bringing economic activity to a halt, political leaders scrambled to respond. Some governments reacted swiftly and competently, while others floundered badly, exacerbating public health and economic crises. 

Nearly three years later, the political aftershocks of the pandemic continue to reverberate worldwide. Beyond the profound human toll, with over 6 million confirmed deaths globally so far, the global health crisis stress-tested political systems – accentuating both strengths and weaknesses. It empowered some leaders, undercut others, spawned new social movements, widened partisan divides, stoked nationalism and international tensions. The landscape of global politics was permanently altered. Text by

Centralized Control, Swift Action 

In some countries, forceful government intervention and social control aimed at containing the virus paid dividends. China, where COVID-19 first emerged in late 2019, imposed draconian lockdowns that slammed the brakes on transmission at tremendous economic and human cost. Beijing’s actions likely prevented wider global spread early on. The country’s authoritarian system – which subordinates individual rights to state power – was “optimized for getting things done quickly without Regel Hindrances,” said Panos Mourdoukoutas, chair of the department of economics at LIU Post in New York.

Other East Asian states that favor centralized decision-making and strict social conformism – like Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea – also fared relatively well, demonstrating competent governance. Their vigorous public health measures tamped down infections and deaths while avoiding extended lockdowns that proved economically disastrous elsewhere. Many Asian countries learned lessons and built preparedness after suffering from the SARS and MERS outbreaks of years past. Japan’s universal health care system, for one, ensured access to treatment. 

Western Democracies Tested

For Western-style democracies – where personal freedoms are paramount – the pandemic confronted leaders with difficult balancing acts. Government mandates like stay-at-home orders, shuttered shops and school closures ran up against deeply ingrained ideals of free movement, free enterprise and free choice. Decentralized power structures granted considerable authority to state, local and municipal officials, allowing localized solutions but sometimes conflicting messages.

Populist movements and leaders – gaining influence before the crisis – leveraged growing frustration to challenge mainstream policies. Defiant citizens from Germany to Canada to the United States protested lockdowns and vaccine mandates as unreasonable constraints on liberty. American conservatives in particular resisted public health measures as impositions on personal rights by an overreaching central government. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump downplayed the pandemic’s danger early on, contravening advisors, and later encouraged anti-lockdown sentiment to curry favor with his base ahead of elections. Far-right European parties like Alternative for Germany, Spain’s Vox and France’s National Rally also stirred anti-restriction movements for political gain. 

Incumbent Advantage

Despite criticisms of pandemic management, incumbent politicians in democracies largely avoided voter backlash. The crisis atmosphere initially buoyed support for familiar leaders, dubbed the “rally round the flag” effect. Over time, the desire for stability and continuity trumped dissatisfaction. 

In the U.S., President Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020 while Democrats maintained control of Congress, seen partly as a referendum on the chaotic pandemic response under the former president. In Germany, France, South Korea and elsewhere, ruling parties held power in elections. Far-right parties hoping to ride anti-government angst instead saw meager gains or lost ground. Voters “were really valuing governments they trusted to see them through the pandemic,” said University of Edinburgh politics professor Jonathan Wheatley.

 Lingering Economic Pain 

If containment policies demonstrated state capacity to mobilize, the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic reflected the limits of government power. Sweeping lockdowns crippled commercial activity, fueling the steepest economic contraction since the Great Depression. Unemployment rates skyrocketed across the globe. Tourism-dependent economies like Thailand, Mexico, Turkey and others dependent on external trade suffered body blows. 

Some national governments, particularly in the West, unleashed spending programs to support workers and businesses. But major stimulus packages further strained budgets already laden with debt, at the cost of future financial flexibility. Central bank interventions temporarily propped up markets. But reliance on easy money carried its own risks: higher inflation, housing bubbles, wider inequality.

By late 2023, forecasters projected most large economies will recover previous output lost during the pandemic. But government debts remain swollen, labor markets show lingering weakness, and recessionary headwinds persist. Meanwhile citizens in lower income nations face lasting hardship from the economic trauma, which reversed gains fighting poverty. The crisis brought “five years of income growth being wiped out within months,” said World Bank President David Malpass.

Shift to Digital Governance

The pandemic unexpectedly accelerated digital transformation of governments across income levels. Public agencies rapidly adopted online platforms and video interfaces to maintain operations as physical offices closed. Government services migrated to websites and apps – including health checks, tax payments, licence renewals, welfare benefits and more. 

School shutdowns forced investments in virtual learning. Telemedicine expanded dramatically to help offset interrupted care. The crisis rapidly shifted cultural norms surrounding remote work and virtual meetings — changes likely to endure to some degree.

But the abrupt digitization also highlighted the digital divide hindering access for rural, poor and elderly populations, particularly in developing nations. And critics raised privacy concerns surrounding the growing reliance on technology giants like Alphabet, Amazon and Apple for core public sector functions. Still, the scope and speed of digital adoption during an emergency demonstrated the possibilities. 

The Power of Science 

Scientists and public health experts gained significant influence during the pandemic as governments relied heavily on technical guidance to navigate the crisis, despite politically controversial policies recommended at times. Dr Anthony Fauci, long-time director the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, along with prominent virologists and epidemiologists like Germany’s Dr. Christian Drosten, became household names as leading advisor voices. 

“Belief in science was enhanced by the critical role played by scientists in fighting the pandemic,” said Mourdoukoutas. Public faith in scientific expertise rose markedly in many countries, according to surveys, after initial criticism regarding flawed projections, changing directives and data gaps. The development in record time of COVID-19 diagnostic tests and novel genetically-engineered messenger RNA vaccines demonstrated the profound potential of science cooperation spanning public and private sectors.

Rise of Surveillance 

But along with the ascent of medical expertise, the crisis also normalized the deployment of pervasive surveillance as an apparatus of pandemic response. Governments tapped mobile location data, credit card transaction records, CCTV cameras, facial recognition and other digital tracking tools to monitor infections, enforce quarantines on patients and suspected contacts, implement lockdowns, and develop exposure notification apps – raising civil liberties concerns by privacy advocates.

The degree of adoption varied globally but the technology genie was out of the bottle. “COVID-19 has emboldened governments’ embrace of surveillance technologies…setting the stage for potential future abuse,” warned a July 2022 Freedom House study titled “Democracy in the Shadow of Disease Surveillance.” Creeping erosion of rights could persist after the virus threat recedes. Still supporters argued desperate times warranted extraordinary measures and credited tech-enabled tracing with slowing viral spread.

Eroding Global Cooperation

On the global stage, collective pandemic response exposed fractures in the foundations supporting postwar solidarity and cooperation amongst developed economies. The crisis ignited nationalism in policies, from export restrictions on medical supplies to strategic hoarding of vaccines. Developed states often fended for themselves in the early phases.

In Europe – already witnessing unraveling of cross-border unity due to Brexit, immigration disputes and regional separatism – the strains intensified both among member states and anti-EU movements, despite efforts to pull together. Closure of borders within the borderless Schengen area resumed strict controls unseen in decades. Financial rescue packages took months to negotiate. Further integration ambitions were shelved.

Rancor also emerged between global powers as the health calamity merged with rising geopolitical tensions predating the crisis. Skirmishes erupted between Beijing and Washington over assigning culpability for the outbreak itself along with access to treatments after. Western intelligence agencies accused both China and Russia of covert vaccine disinformation schemes – warning of a global medical cyberwar. The pandemic “is amplifying threats to globalization,” concluded the U.K.-based Tony Blair Institute. 

Driver of Inequality

As governments focused relief spending on businesses deemed economically essential, the pandemic also spotlit yawning labor disparities hidden beneath the surface of thriving economies. Workers in frontline jobs that carried higher viral risk – from nurses and elder-caregivers to delivery couriers, grocery clerks and meat plant laborers – often lacked basic protections like paid sick leave while keeping societies fed and functioning. 

Wildcat strikes erupted in warehouses, fast food outlets, nursing homes and hospitals as workers demanded safer conditions, overtime pay and better benefits. The essential worker cause united progressive activists worldwide around fairer treatment for lower paid but vital jobs in healthcare, transport, services, manufacturing and agriculture. 

Economically, stimulus packages favored capital owners over wage earners, critics charged, while emergency funds supported distressed executives more generously than struggling households. Stock markets quickly regained lofty valuations thanks partly to corporate bailouts, boosting wealth among billionaire tech entrepreneurs and investors at the apex. Easy central bank money flowed disproportionately into buoying financial assets.

The crisis thus shined an unforgiving light on the uncovered margins of affluent societies, stirring calls for structural reforms promoting greater equality – issues animating populist campaigns when the virus first sent economies into lockdown. Those pressures show few signs of abating as policymakers continue navigating the pandemic aftershocks reshaping economics, culture and politics worldwide.

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