authoritarianism, Health, Human Rights, Populism, Violence

The perils of politics in a pandemic

Apr 16 2020

The Economist 

Leaders are enjoying a short-term boost during the coronavirus crisis. That may not last

FEW WOULD envy their political leaders at times like this. The battle with covid-19 is one with an implacable enemy in which the politicians seem always to be losing, and struggling to catch up with the pace of events. The coronavirus will not submit to their armoury of promises, threats or flattery; funding pledges or sanctions. Unlike the economy, in which actions and consequences are separated by months or years, the coronavirus exposes the errors of leaders with merciless speed. And all too often it threatens them personally, as Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, now thankfully out of hospital, has discovered.

One consolation for incumbent governments is that in national crises—warfare, natural disaster, pestilence—they tend to see their popularity rise. They dominate press coverage, leading the national resistance; opposition voices are muted, lest they appear treasonous. These short-term gains, however, are small compensation for the risks the pandemic poses to politicians in the long term.

The most obvious is that, like everybody else, they are susceptible to infection. Mr Johnson is far from the only leading politician to have contracted covid-19. In Iran several politicians and officials have died, and the infected include Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Senior politicians in France, Italy and Spain have tested positive. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, had to isolate himself after his wife tested positive. So did Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, after a doctor who had given her a vaccination was found to be carrying the virus. President Donald Trump has twice tested negative—once after meeting a Brazilian delegation, some members of which were infected. And Mr Trump, like Joe Biden, his presumed opponent in the presidential election in November, is in his 70s, which is worrying given that the risk of the virus increases with age.

Politicians may be more vulnerable to infection these days because they find it even harder than in normal times to take a break. For those aspiring to lead, a crisis really is an opportunity, a moment when they feel the weight of history. This is not a time when an ambitious politician will want to take a back seat, let alone be secluded in full quarantine and bed rest. Public service, after all, can have no nobler aim than to lead at a time of such menace. And, as the pandemic spreads, the number of capable stand-ins well enough to take over may dwindle. More cynically, who would want to give a deputy the chance to outshine the boss?

At times like these, moreover, theirs are dangerous jobs. Normally, politics is a contact sport, a matter of meeting people, of making speeches to (they hope) crowded rooms or cheering rallies; of combative debates in closed parliamentary chambers; of glad-handing crowds and kissing babies; of taking vital decisions while cloistered with cabinet colleagues, advisers and senior officials. All of this is much harder in a time of semi-quarantine. Mr Biden, for example, has almost faded from view, as he has struggled to get his message across from his basement.

Those out of government, however, can take comfort in the hope that a prolonged period of national distress may turn people against their rulers. Leaders, particularly those who have imposed lockdowns on their populations, will be expected to lead by example, and be especially susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy. In Britain, a government minister has had to try to justify why he left London for his other home, and why he drove 40 miles (64km) to visit his parents, in apparent breach of government guidelines. He was luckier than three MPs in Botswana who were forced into government-overseen quarantine after they were “caught shopping” and pilloried on social media.

But besides having to be seen to lead model lives, politicians in office face a far more fundamental difficulty: how to explain the gravity of the moment without inculcating disillusionment in their leadership and, ultimately, public despair? The remedies, in terms of the economic collapse caused by shutting away much of the population, can seem almost as dire as the virus itself. So ingrained is the desire to tell stories with a happy ending that many politicians for too long played down how bleak prospects were for containing the virus—none more so than Mr Trump who, having predicted that case would disappear miraculously, more recently warned Americans, “There will be a lot of death.”

Many have belatedly grasped the nettle; but their most positive messages are not forward-looking, so much as appeals to history, reminding their people, “We have survived worse before.” Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, was among the most direct of national leaders in declaring “we are at war”. But martial language is ubiquitous, along with the implied appeal to past heroism. The instinct to rally round the flag at a moment of peril may not last long. Lacking an “exit strategy”, a clear path out of the current misery of social distance and lockdown—and seeing how better-prepared countries have coped more effectively with the pandemic—many populations will find that such messages soon grate.

Worse is to come. In many countries the response to the virus will, when it is eventually defeated, be subject to investigation. Inquiries will point to the many mistakes that have been made—the failure to recognise the seriousness of the virus in time, the delay in protecting the population, the shortages of even basic medical equipment to cope with its arrival, the thousands of lives lost unnecessarily, and much more. Blame will be allocated. And the governments in power at the time will not be able to dodge it all.

The sense that people and their governments represent a unified polity may then prove to have been illusory. After all, the most powerful displays of solidarity have been demonstrations of appreciation in a number of countries for those putting themselves at risk—the rituals of mass applause for health workers and others. As the politicians join in the cheering for the public’s heroes, some must be wondering: how long before that turns to cursing against the rulers?


Annex 1

Hungarian autocracy – Viktor Orbán applies the Trump-Bolsonaro method: Dismiss those who disagree

By Justin Spike –  InsightHungary newsletter

Thousands of patients relocated or sent home following government order to vacate hospital beds

Hungary’s public hospitals received a letter last week from Minister of Human Resources Miklós Kásler giving them eight days to evacuate at least 60% of their publicly funded hospital beds. The minister’s order required that some 36,000 of Hungary’s 60,000 hospital beds be vacated by April 15 to make room for new coronavirus patients, requiring current patients, some with chronic illnesses or injuries, to be transferred to other institutions or sent home. 

The order threw hospitals into a frenzy to relocate their patients, many of whom required 24-hour care. Reports emerged of family members being told their loved ones would soon be evicted from hospital: one 73-year-old woman was told she must bring her 93-year-old mother, who requires constant care, home from the chronic illnesses ward of a Budapest hospital within 72 hours. Another patient, a recent amputee with an oozing, sutured wound, was also sent home.

Some hospitals struggled to fulfill the ministry’s order by the deadline. On Easter Sunday, director of the National Medical Rehabilitation Institute (OORI) Péter Cserháti learned from a strongly-worded statement by the Ministry of Human Resources (EMMI) that he had been dismissed from his position for failing to free up enough beds. EMMI claimed that Cserháti “did not provide for the relocation of rehabilitation patients” which “seriously jeopardizes successful epidemic control and patient care”. 

The next day, doctors and medical staff of the OORI held a protest demanding Cserháti’s reinstatement. They disputed EMMI’s claim that not enough beds had been vacated, and argued that many of the top-tier hospital’s patients were receiving special treatment that, if interrupted, could result in the death of the patient. One hospital employee told 444 that Cserháti’s dismissal may have been the result of his administering coronavirus tests to patients brought from other hospitals on his own authority, some of whom tested positive.

Some suspected similar motives for the dismissal of a hospital director in Székesfehérvár, who was reportedly fired for an administrative error. The director, István Csernavölgyi, said that the hospital was late in reporting digital data to EMMI, but that it had reported the data by phone and immediately sent the data after being alerted of the delay by the ministry. Csernavölgyi said that despite the extraordinary pressures facing the hospital, it had successfully reported its data on time in every other case, and added that “I will take the necessary legal steps to defend the truth”. 

At a government press conference on Thursday, PMO chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said that while he holds Cserháti in high esteem both personally and professionally, EMMI determined that he had committed an error for which he had to be replaced.

“The government’s goal is to ensure effective defense against the virus,” Gulyás said. “Everyone must follow and execute the measures put forth by the Emergency Task Force. Someone must bear the responsibility.”

As hospitals struggled to vacate thousands of beds within a few days, patients with chronic diseases were transferred or sent home regardless of their condition. “They’re literally kicking him out,” one Index reader said of her father, who was being treated in the Szent Margit Hospital in Budapest. “A lady called in the afternoon to tell me to pick up my father by 11 am the next day. I told them it would be difficult to solve in such a short time, but she didn’t care. Her answer was, ‘this is an order from above, and we’re definitely sending him away whether you come for him or not.'”

One head doctor at a hospital told 444 that interruptions in care caused by the sweeping order could ultimately cause more deaths than Covid-19 itself, and that while there is a need to free beds for potential coronavirus patients, doing so without regard for the types of hospitals, wards and patients was dangerously disruptive.

Speaking to Index, health economist Csaba Dózsa said that current trends in coronavirus infection in Hungary “do not justify the need for so many hospital beds”.Global statistics show that around 20-25% of those infected with Covid-19 require hospitalization. Based on that data, the government’s requirement to vacate 36,000 beds for infected patients would be proportional to 150,000-180,000 cases of coronavirus in Hungary, about 100 times more than are currently confirmed.Of all of Hungary’s 60,000 beds, only 1,000-1,500 can perform specialized treatment using ventilators on infected patients, according to health economist Balázs Rékassy. He told Index that not all hospitals are equipped to accept coronavirus patients, and that from an epidemiological point of view, it would be better to separate those hospitals which are.

Karácsony: government has not kept its promise to administer more tests

In an open letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, 42 opposition mayors, including Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony, called on the government to begin administering coronavirus tests to all retirement home residents and staff across Hungary. The mayors worried that cases of the disease were being confirmed with increasing frequency in retirement homes, where residents are particularly vulnerable to its effects.

According to Karácsony, the government has not responded to the letter, nor to requests for more testing he made during a Parliamentary assembly he attended last week. At the assembly, Orbán promised government help in testing at Budapest retirement homes, but that “the promise has not been kept, and a slander campaign has been launched,” Karácsony said. 

A bitter conflict emerged between the government and City Hall after dozens of residents at the Pesti út retirement home in Budapest tested positive for Covid-19. Government communication insisted that city leadership was responsible for the explosion of cases, while Karácsony argued that it is the legal responsibility of the central government to provide protective equipment and administer tests. The mayor also repeatedly asked the government not to allow retirement home residents to return to the homes following hospital visits before receiving a negative Covid-19 test, a request the government ignored.  

So far, 204 residents at the home have been infected with the virus, while ten have died.

Karácsony accused the government of ignoring the need to increase testing, and said that communication between the government and City Hall had come to a near standstill.

“There is no systemic cooperation, and this is a very big problem because it does not improve the effectiveness of defending against the virus,” he said. The mayor has spoken to Chief Medical Officer Cecilia Müller only once since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. “It was very difficult to reach her, and I indicated to her that the flow of information was not perfect,” he said. “I’ve quit calling her since then because she never calls back.”


Annex 2

The Coronavirus Is Mutating. What Does That Mean for a Vaccine?

By Nathaniel Lash and Tala Schlossberg – The New York Times:

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