Data suggests right-wing governments have failed to respond to pandemic

Inequality hampers the fight against COVID-19
Photo: Palácio do Planalto
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Reports have highlighted that women leaders are responding better to COVID-19 than their male counterparts, many of whom are right-leaning politicians. This made us wonder: which countries are responding the worst to the crisis, who is leading these countries, and where do they lie on the political spectrum?

To answer these questions, we dove into the available data, reflecting conditions up to Aug. 20.

Ten countries in the world accounted for 70 per cent of total COVID-19 cases: the U.S., India, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Chile, South Africa, Peru, and Colombia. Of these nations, seven are under the control of centre-right or right-leaning governments, with only Spain, South Africa, and Mexico under centre-left or left-leaning control. All ten countries are run by male leaders.

To see if COVID-19 case levels could be associated with the political leanings of governments in power, we analyzed other possible contributing factors — such as urban density, civil unrest, and population age — to rule them out.

Our analysis suggests that right-wing policies that support inequality have tended to impede pandemic responses.

Urban density

The first factor we considered is a country’s population density.

The U.S. had the highest number of reported COVID-19 cases globally, with Brazil and India following closely behind. But while a high percentage of the U.S. and Brazilian populations live in urban settings, thereby increasing the risk of transmission through population density, a smaller proportion of India’s population lives in urban areas.

Data from India showed that cases there were not concentrated solely within urban areas, despite high levels in slums, but spread across the country in both urban and rural spaces. The rise of cases within less densely populated regions has been linked to migrant workers returning to their homes after strict lockdown protocols in cities combined with low levels of COVID-19 testing — people have been moving around without knowing they’re infected. Of the 10 countries accounting for 70 per cent of COVID-19 cases, India had the second-lowest testing level, at 17,451 tests per million people.

Given that the U.S. and Brazil have much smaller overall populations than India, we determined each country’s number of cases per million people to get a better sense of how much COVID-19 was affecting them. When we did this, the top three countries shifted to Chile, the U.S., and Brazil, with India moving into last place in terms of cases per million. We look at these new top three countries next.

Civil unrest and policies of inequality

Chile, the U.S, and Brazil are all governed by right-wing or far-right leaders. They’re all also facing civil unrest caused by citizen dissatisfaction with government policies that entrench inequality.

Chile has the highest number of cases per million people. This could be attributed to its high population density, but recent political unrest should also be considered.

In October 2019, students began protesting in the capital of Santiago against subway fare increases. The hike in public transit costs, compounded with rising costs of living and increases in privatization of public services, resulted in youth protests against these politically enforced socioeconomic inequalities. These protests grew into a countrywide movement demanding constitutional changes and the resignation of the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman who became the first elected centre-right president in the country since 1958. While Piñera’s two-year term has been marked by the need to respond to the challenges left by Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship (1973–1990), the country has grown weary of the president’s “growth with equity” economic agenda.

Chile’s country-wide protests were put on hold due to COVID-19, so they haven’t furthered the spread of the virus. However, the country’s high COVID-19 rates do share the same cause as the protests, as the virus has “exploited the cracks in Chilean society.” As in many countries, the first cases were found in the upper echelons of society as the wealthy returned from international travel. The government responded appropriately in the early days, quarantining the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, but cases began to climb steadily in May, shortly after the government began discussions about reopening. This uptick resulted from the virus moving into low-income areas where people cannot remain at home — they must go out to earn enough to live. Although the government offered financial and food support, this wasn’t enough to counter the country’s entrenched inequality, and its two-tiered healthcare system was inundated by low-income residents.

The policies that have been proven most effective in containing the virus involve coordinated action from people across the nation regardless of socioeconomic background — a more left-wing approach to the crisis. Of the 10 countries to which 70 per cent of the world’s confirmed COVID-19 cases can be attributed, countries run by centre-right or right-wing countries account for 63 per cent of cases, while the remaining three countries governed by centre-left or left-wing political parties account for only 7 per cent.

Both India and Chile provide examples of how right-wing policies that support inequality (such as two-tiered healthcare) can impede pandemic responses. Another example of right-wing impediments to addressing COVID-19 can be seen in the global rise of protests against safety precautions such as lockdowns, mask-wearing, and quarantining. Some governments have adopted this way of thinking by implementing a laissez-faire approach to lockdowns, as was seen in the Netherlands.

While some parties have used the pandemic to advance right-wing agendas, such as passing anti-immigration policies that are popular with their base, the reality is that right-wing government support has seen a decline in countries across Europe and abroad. But there is still considerable support for right-leaning parties, deepening left-right polarization.

Population age

An unexpected finding was that the countries with the most COVID-19 cases did not suffer the most COVID-19 deaths.

The U.S. led the pack in terms of absolute number of COVID-19 deaths. But when looking at COVID-19 deaths per million, Spain rose among the top spots.

Since COVID-19 has a higher fatality rate among the elderly, an older population could be a contributing factor. Of the 10 countries, Spain (median age of 45.5) has the oldest population. This may have contributed to left-leaning countries having a slightly higher average death rate than the right-leaning countries in this analysis.

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The country with the second-oldest population is Russia (median age of 40), which has the second-lowest number of COVID-19 deaths per million. However, this may be attributable to underreporting of both cases and fatalities, though the government claims it’s not interfering in reports of COVID-19.

Preparing for future waves

While this review of the data opens up discussion, it does come with limitations.

Information for this analysis, obtained from Worldometers and the World Health Organization Coronavirus Disease Dashboard, reflects available data as of Aug. 20. Concerns about underreporting of cases affect all countries, and national numbers inevitably do not include every person who has contracted COVID-19. Finally, when examining data at an international level, it is difficult to address all contributing factors.

It is important to keep examining which countries are responding well and which are having more difficulty in containing the virus as the pandemic continues. As countries are hit by subsequent waves of COVID-19, this kind of data analysis can be used to help minimize fatalities.

Correction: The original version of this article stated incorrectly that Spain had the highest death rate.

Denna Berg holds a master’s degree in public policy and works as a policy advisor in the health equity realm. Karin Taylor holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and works in data analysis and visualization in health and regulation.

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