What decides a politician’s fate in the Time of Covid?
Similar places have had vastly different pandemics.
The political calculus is one part policy and many parts social perception.
Skillful political actions and empathy ultimately move the polls.
We are starting to see the political impacts of Covid come pouring down on electorates everywhere.
Our leaders in British Columbia, where I live, decided to leap ahead of the Americans with a snap election that delivered a tasty treat just before Halloween.
This result got me thinking about the link between Covid and politics.
I decided to look around the world at other jurisdictions like BC, in order to shed some light on the issue.
My guidepost for an apples-to-apples comparison was choosing places that were similar prosperous, open, and democratic societies.
The short list includes neighboring regions (Alberta, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon), Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland), smaller Western European nations (Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria), and four from Down Under (New Zealand and the larger Australian states of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria).
To put BC’s providential performance in context, I looked at WHO data to determine what a typical year of influenza and pneumonia deaths looks like.
Across my set of countries, the median jurisdiction reports just under 200 such deaths per million people per year. That translates into just over 1 death per million every second day of the year, or a daily death rate of 0.00005%.
So far in 2020, the Covid death rate here is 50 deaths per million, or only one-quarter of the normal death rate, and is especially notable since the flu has disappeared from BC, like elsewhere, this year. It’s a real stretch to call it a pandemic.
What of BC’s neighboring states and province?
A quick look at their charts shows varying positive tests data but fairly low mortality.
How have their politicians done in public polling? The answer for the US states, like BC, is “rather good”, with all of the campaigning Governors and Senators up against their opponents.
The situation in Alberta is far more dire.
There, Premier Kenney remains the second worst rated premier in the country and his party is down. He is one of the few politicians in the world to not capitalize on Covid.
Given Alberta’s low death rate of 67 per million in 2020, not much higher than BC, it is hard to blame this on pandemic facts or fears.
It seems that pandemic management style counts, especially when Alberta’s oil-dependent economy and fiscal situation are also in such trouble.
The Aussie and Kiwi situation shows a rip-roaring pandemic that has come and gone in Victoria, but nothing much elsewhere in those two countries.
Every leader is popular except Victoria Premier Andrews. He, like Alberta’s Kenney, has seen plunging popularity since June, down 20 full points.
This followed a truly exponential rise in positive tests and deaths in Victoria and a three month lockdown started at the contagion peak in August.
Like BC, the Nordics have also mostly been spared from the pandemic. They have seen a steady decline in death rates since the spring and a rise in the polls. No losers here.
The West European nations most comparable to BC all had significant pandemics in the spring and are now seeing a sharp rise in positive tests and a much more subdued rise in deaths.
The Dutch case perhaps proves again that solid pandemic management in the face of a viral menace, even if only perceptual, can work to a skilled politician’s advantage.
Ireland’s situation is like a mix of these countries and the state of Victoria, a story of a significant spring pandemic and improvement, and then a renewed full lockdown (for six more weeks).
This careening viral and policy rollercoaster has not been well-received by the Irish electorate, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s party down 9 points from the recent election.
So, what are the political lessons learned here?
The primary one for me is that the pandemic, even when it did not happen or was not very dangerous or is now greatly moderated or is already over, is very much a perceptual social issue.
This means that political action and empathy will be well received by most people and will be rewarded in the polls. The lesson for politicians is to show up every day in a highly visible and competent way and be seen to be doing and caring.
The actual impact of policy on the viral outbreak is far more questionable, with great differences in the severity and timing of the pandemic that do not at all match the policy decisions (which are usually late).
Also, the evidence from Alberta, Ireland, and Victoria suggests that the actual magnitude of the pandemic does not necessarily drive political popularity, since their experiences vary so much and they all dropped in the polls.
Back to BC, Premier John Horgan pulled off the winner’s trifecta: skilled, empathic, and lucky. Not every leader is so fortunate.
The full article can be found here.