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Bill Emmott: Concentrate on staying dry and alive amidst the COVID-19 storm

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

By Bill Emmott

In the middle of a storm, it makes no sense to try to list what damage is going to be done as it rages onward. We need to concentrate on staying dry and alive while it is happening. It is much the same with the economic and political damage that might be done by the COVID-19 global pandemic. As with a storm, it feels certain that plenty of damage will be done but that future damage is too unpredictable to worry too much about when human life is at stake more imminently.

What we can and should do, however, is to identify what sort of trends we will need to watch for during the coming months and years in order then to assess and plan for the political impact of a pandemic that, while not strictly unprecedented, is nevertheless unprecedented in recent memory and in its global scale and implications.

In doing so, it may well prove to be that indirect effects become more important and potentially impactful than the direct effects of the coronavirus. This is not to say that in democracies voters will not punish political parties that happen to have been in government when the crisis hit. They probably will. But simple changes of government at the next election from one party to another will not count as a major political transformation.

The reason is simple. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. All countries' governments have made mistakes in dealing with it, generally the same mistakes of acting too slowly to reduce the virus's transmission and of not having made adequate preparations in the health system. But that is largely because this pandemic is unprecedented: all governments are in uncharted territory.

This makes it unlikely that voters will react by taking political systems in dramatically new directions. To go in a new direction requires a credible alternative plan. There isn't one and is unlikely to be one, beyond perhaps some argument about greater control over borders and about spending more money on health systems. In this pandemic, trust in government is vital, but at the same time, government remains the public's best hope, for information as well as for health and welfare solutions.

The same may well apply to authoritarian political systems, although some of those may nevertheless prove more vulnerable to a breakdown in public trust than democracies are, because trust is already weaker in dictatorships. In democracies, we often lament the decline in public trust in government but at least there is the safety valve of periodic elections at which voters can express their anger and replace the incumbents.

Dictatorships do not have any such safety valve beyond their own communication and responsiveness to the public. That is why when overthrows of regimes by popular protests occur, they often happen without any clear idea about what to replace the old regime with. That is what happened during the so-called "Arab Spring" of 2010-12 when regimes in such countries as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were toppled amid popular discontent.

This is why indirect effects may prove more important in determining which regimes are at risk from dramatic political change, whether they are autocratic or democratic. Here, economics is destined to play a big part. It is already evident that in Africa, for example, the biggest shock that has hit many countries and their governments is not so much COVID-19 as the dramatic fall in oil and other commodity prices that the pandemic has caused. The price of crude oil is now nearly 70% lower than a year ago; metals prices overall are down 15% but some, such as copper, by far more. Countries such as Angola or Zambia that depend on these commodities for their export incomes and public finances are at risk of imminent bankruptcy.

In rich and poor countries alike, the public reaction to economic privations and inequalities may be where the main dangers lie. If economic privations combine with resentment and anger about governmental failings in managing the health crisis, the resulting mix could prove explosive. Iran is one obvious candidate for such a mix, but there will be others.

The main risk of this type in democratic countries may well arise after the health crisis is past its worst. In Europe and North America, and soon too in Japan, economies and societies have been put into a sort of partial hibernation which citizens are happy to accept for as long as they feel it is necessary, even unavoidable, to protect their own health. But restrictions on work and social movement will prove harder to remove in a smooth way than they were to put in place.

The reason, first, is that it will be difficult to know what health and scientific data really justifies a relaxation. But also, second, and more critically, it will hard to work out how to lift the restrictions in an equitable way. Discontent could easily gain strength in many countries either because the restrictions have been maintained for too long or because some people seem to be getting a better deal than others.

A key mistake made especially in Europe after the 2008 financial crisis was that government's fiscal stimulus programs for their economies were ended or cut back too soon. Populist political forces gained strength on the basis of resentment that while bankers were being bailed out, ordinary people were made to suffer.

The same could happen again during the recovery period from the pandemic. This time, the major focus of governmental fiscal support is on welfare payments both to individuals and to companies, so as to help them survive the economic hibernation. The way in which this welfare is withdrawn could prove decisive as to whether in some countries the aftermath of the pandemic brings radical political change or reverts to business as usual.

It is really far too soon to make predictions, but if I were President Donald Trump I would be feeling very worried about the US presidential vote in November, for as the incumbent he will be the obvious, perhaps only, person available to blame. But whether or not America or any other democracy moves in a more dramatic new political direction we will probably not know for several years. This process has only just begun.

(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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