- The United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster compared to other countries.
- Indeed, our political system values economic production above all other considerations, including public health.
- Leaders in other countries, such as New Zealand, have shown how to put public health first and have been politically rewarded.
- But given our system, public opinion favoring public health priorities has been overwhelmed by the economic concerns of our political leaders.
- George Pearkes is the Global Macro Strategist for Tailor-made investment group.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage the United States and hundreds of thousands of Americans have died, the question of why the country has failed to contain the virus has become a priority. This question is particularly troubling given the range of countries around the world that have managed to both prevent its arrival and contain any outbreaks that do occur.
It is popular, depending on your political orientation, to blame the president, or China, or the victims of the pandemic themselves. But the dire impact of the pandemic is far more likely a product of structural forces in American society than who sits in the White House or where the virus originated.
America’s response to COVID – and in particular the apparent disconnect between public opinion and the policies implemented to combat the pandemic – is a function of the pre-COVID political economy and how our society is organized.
American political institutions (broadly defined as those institutions that allow one group to exercise power over another) have become narrowly focused on a single goal: maximizing income or economic output.
Governors, businesses, civic organizations and entire academic disciplines have accepted the idea that a cost-benefit analysis based on some measure of material well-being is by far the best – if not the only – way to measure the validity of a given policy.
In other words, US institutions value the increase in GDP over other measures of well-being.
It is not a values-neutral choice, but an expression of what our political process values. Relatively similar societies like Australia or New Zealand have chosen to make a different choice during the COVID pandemic.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden is expected at cruising for re-election this week as polls suggest his left-leaning Labor party will win almost half of the nation’s vote. That would be a big improvement from the 37% manpower garnered in 2017.
New Zealand has unique advantages when it comes to containing COVID, such as its relatively small population, island geography and well-developed public health infrastructure. But the country has also taken an unusually aggressive approach to imposing lockdowns that prevent community spread.
“Level 4” lockdowns require residents to stay home unless they are an essential worker, shopping for food or briefly exercising outside. The use of both local and national lockdowns has resulted in incredible suppression of COVID-19. Kiwis have suffered less than 400 cases per million population in total during the pandemic. For the United States, that many cases are currently being reported every three days!
In Australia, the Liberal/National coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also been much less fearful of asking citizens to shut down at home and as a result only around 1% of the Australian population has tested positive over the past the pandemic. While a recent poll shows faltering support, through August the Liberal/National coalition’s poll share had risen around 4 points and propelled them ahead of Australia’s Labor Party, the opposite of the situation in February.
Less developed economies that have also continued aggressive lockdowns have also seen extremely low case numbers. Perhaps the best example is Mongolia. Neighboring China’s fierce response to the initial outbreak allowed more than half a billion domestic travelers to move freely around the country during the recent Golden Week Holidays.
Public opinion versus public institutions
Sitting in North Carolina, these results are hard to believe. My state saw armed gangs parade in the capital on a stay-at-home order. This week, federal authorities charged a gang that intend to remove the governors of Michigan and Virginia, largely in reaction against those states’ policies to contain the spread of COVID.
From the reports, it appears that Americans are more than willing to suffer public health consequences in order to keep the economy moving. But looking at public polls, that kind of backlash to lockdown orders is a minority position.
At the height of the closings in April, Americans were more worried about restrictions being lifted too quickly than not quickly enough by a 2-to-1 margin, and Morning consultation data found that through early October, more than half of adults believe the US government is not doing enough to deal with the COVID outbreak. This included majorities from all income brackets, non-whites, Christians, suburbanites, self-employed and military households.
Despite strong evidence that Americans want outcomes that more closely resemble the New Zealand model, our policy infrastructure has focused on minimizing any cost to economic activity rather than public health outcomes.
The impact of shutdowns or other restrictions on consumers and businesses is no greater in the United States than in other countries. But the preferences of companies and certain consumer groups are given much more weight here.
States like Arizona, Texas and Florida initially brought case growth under control, but a rush to reopen for the summer has sent new cases per capita into a range that few countries in the world have endured. The federal government’s response has been haphazard at best and in complete denial of the outbreak at worst.
As things stand, voters in aggressively-reactive countries like New Zealand and Australia appear to support the decisions made by their elected leaders. While Americans generally seem to favor a more aggressive response, our political system fails to make the tough decisions and give public opinion what it wants.
Of course, the United States is not alone in not dealing with COVID. New cases in the UK are now rising faster relative to population than new US cases at their summer peak, while polities in Europe ranging from the Czech Republic to Spain have seen huge increases in cases this autumn.
The UK is an instructive example of another country with political institutions that are apparently failing to meet public expectations, and not just because of COVID.
After Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron staged a Brexit referendum to shield his party from defections to the UK Independence Party, Leave unexpectedly won in 2016 and sparked years of disputes over how to move forward that did not collapse with the existing British political party. lines. The country is still trying to reach an internal consensus on how to handle its departure from the EU after multiple ostensibly framed elections over how to move Brexit forward.
COVID and Brexit are very different challenges, but in both cases existing UK institutions have been put under pressure to arbitrate what different political actors have wanted; that was ultimately the challenge for the United States as well.
Eventually, the virus will become less prominent in the day-to-day headlines, but the United States will still face the challenge of political institutions that do not represent the popular will. The geographic bias of the US Senate, lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, or the two-party system itself are other examples of this disconnect at play.
Luckily, the US and UK have systems designed to be plastic. Americans have rewritten their Constitution seventeen times since Madison led the Bill of Rights in 1789. Specific institutions are even more open to change, such as Senate majority rules maintained by the body itself.
Across the pond, the UK doesn’t even have a formal written constitution to compel the reimagining of political institutions. There is nothing permanent about the political structures that govern either country.
The question is whether the popular will is strong enough to realize that what is broken must be fixed.