Populist nations fared much worse during Covid outbreak, new research says

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Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, delivers a speech at the Fidesz party headquarters in Budapest, Hungary, on April 8, 2018.

Akos Stiller | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Risk of death from Covid-19 is significantly higher in countries ruled by populist governments, a new study has found.

Published Thursday in the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, the peer-reviewed study, carried out by an international team of researchers, found that populist governments had performed worse than non-populist governments at handling the crisis.

Researchers analyzed excess deaths in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. They found that excess mortality was, on average, more than twice as high in populist-governed countries than in non-populist governed countries.

Before the pandemic, a so-called “populist wave” — which saw radical and anti-establishment leaders, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, rise to power — swept across many countries.

Populism was defined in the study as an ideology that considers society to be “separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people.”

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Of the 42 countries included in the analysis, 11 were classified as populist-governed in 2020: the U.S., Brazil, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the U.K., India, Israel, Mexico, Poland, Slovakia and Turkey. The countries that were considered non-populist governed included Japan, Canada and Sweden.

Countries included in the analysis were OECD members or BRICS nations (one of five major emerging economies).

For every 100 expected deaths in non-populist countries, Covid caused an additional 8 deaths, researchers found.

But in populist-led countries, Covid led to an additional 18 deaths for every 100 non-Covid deaths.

The study’s authors attributed this largely to higher “citizen mobility” in populist-governed countries, which was calculated using Google data to determine how busy certain places — like grocery stores — were during the pandemic. They found that in populist-led countries, individuals’ movement was twice as high as it was in non-populist led countries.

Two reasons were identified as being behind this disparity. First, the study said, populist governments were less likely to implement long-term, unpopular mitigation policies that infringed on the public’s ability to live relatively normal lives — even at risk of allowing the virus to spread.

Populist governments’ communications on Covid were also “designed to downplay the severity of the pandemic and to discredit scientific findings,” the Kiel Institute, a German think tank involved in the research, found. Citizens of these countries were consequently less likely to take the virus seriously and make choices to limit the risk of contracting or spreading Covid.

“While the policy response of non-populist governments is dependent on the positive test ratio, that is, the spread of virus, the policy response of populist governments is indifferent to the spread of the virus and significantly lower at high positive test ratios,” the research paper said.

In June 2020, when the U.K. had the highest Covid death toll in Europe, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his government’s response, telling lawmakers: “I take full responsibility for everything this Government has been doing in tackling coronavirus and I’m very proud of our record.”

Earlier this month, the U.K. became the first country in Europe to record 150,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

“The numbers are clear — populists are the worst crisis managers in the Covid-19 pandemic and responsible for many avoidable deaths in the countries they govern,” Michael Bayerlein, a researcher on populism at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and co-author of the report, said in a press release Thursday.

“The high excess mortality is driven by too much mobility, which in turn is caused by a lack of restrictions and anti-Covid-19 propaganda. The only good news [is] the clear link between mobility and death toll also means people can protect themselves by voluntarily limiting their contacts during the pandemic.”

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