- The United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster compared to other countries.
- This is because our political system values economic production above all other considerations, including public health.
- Leaders from other countries, like New Zealand, have shown how to prioritize public health and have been politically rewarded.
- But given our system, public opinion that prioritizes public health priorities has been overwhelmed by the economic concerns of our political leaders.
- George Pearkes is the Global Macro Strategist for Bespoke Investment Group.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business Insider 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 concern. This question is particularly troubling given that the range of countries around the world have managed to prevent its arrival and contain any epidemic that may arise.
It is common, depending on your political orientation, to blame the president, or China, or the victims of the pandemic themselves. But the disastrous impact of the pandemic is far more likely the product of structural forces in American society than of those in the White House or where the virus originated.
The United States’ response to COVID – and in particular the apparent disconnect between public opinion and the policies being 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 institutions that allow one group to exercise power over another) have been narrowly focused on one goal: to maximize 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 validity of a given policy.
In other words, US institutions value increased GDP over other measures of well-being.
This is not a value neutral choice, but an expression of what our political process values. Relatively similar companies 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 to face her re-election this week, as polls suggest her left-wing Labor party will win nearly half of the country’s votes. This would be a big improvement from the 37% of work recorded 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 blockages that prevent the community from spreading.
“Level 4” closures force residents to stay home unless they are a critical worker, shopping for food, or briefly exercising outside. The use of lockdowns both locally and nationally has resulted in an 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 afraid to ask citizens to shut up in their homes and as a result only around 1% of the Australian population has tested positive in the past. the pandemic. While a recent poll shows faltering support, until August the share of the Liberal / National coalition polls had risen by around 4 points and propelled them to the top of the Australian Labor Party, in stark contrast. from what they were in February.
Less developed economies that also pursued aggressive lockdowns also saw extremely low numbers of cases. Perhaps the best example is Mongolia. Neighboring China’s fierce response to the initial outbreak has allowed more than half a billion domestic travelers to roam the country freely during the recent Golden Week holiday.
Public opinion versus public institutions
Sitting in North Carolina, these results are hard to believe. My state has seen armed gangs march through the capital for a stay-at-home order. This week, federal authorities indicted a gang that planned to remove the governors of Michigan and Virginia, largely in reaction to that state’s policies to contain the spread of COVID.
Based on reports, it would appear 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 lockdowns in April, Americans were more concerned that the restrictions would be lifted too quickly than not quickly enough with a 2-to-1 margin, and data from Morning Consult showed that in early October, more than half of adults believe the U.S. government is not doing enough to tackle the COVID epidemic. This included the majority of all income brackets, non-whites, Christians, commuters, the self-employed, and military households.
Despite strong evidence that Americans want outcomes that are more like the New Zealand model, our political infrastructure has focused on minimizing costs to economic activity rather than public health outcomes.
The impact of lockdowns or other restrictions on consumers and businesses is somehow no greater in the United States than in other countries. But the preferences of businesses and certain groups of consumers carry much more weight here.
States like Arizona, Texas and Florida initially controlled the growth of cases, but a rush to reopen for the summer has sent new cases per capita into a range few countries in the world have endured. The federal government’s response has been haphazard at best, and outright denial of the epidemic at worst.
As it stands, voters in aggressively responding countries like New Zealand and Australia appear to support decisions made by their elected leaders. While Americans generally seem to be in favor of a more aggressive response here, our political system fails to make the tough decisions and deliver what public opinion wants.
Of course, the United States is not the only one not facing COVID. New cases in the UK are now growing faster relative to population than new US cases at their summer peak, while EU policies from the Czech Republic to Spain have seen huge increases in cases this fall .
The UK is an instructive example of another country with political institutions apparently failing to deliver what public opinion wants, and not just on COVID.
After Tory Prime Minister David Cameron staged a Brexit referendum to protect his party from UK Independence Party defections, Leave unexpectedly won in 2016 and sparked years of disputes over how to move forward which have not been resolved with the existing British political party. lines. The country is still trying to reach an internal consensus on how to deal with its departure from the EU after multiple ostensibly framed elections over how to get Brexit done.
COVID and Brexit are very different challenges, but in both cases existing UK institutions were put under pressure to arbitrate what different political actors wanted; that was ultimately the challenge for the United States as well.
Eventually, the virus will become less prominent in the daily 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 U.S. Senate, life-time Supreme Court appointments, or the bipartisan system itself are other examples of this disconnect at play.
Fortunately, the US and UK both 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 needs to be fixed.