The pandemic and what it sows for the political class


How can we measure the effectiveness of politicians when it comes to managing the coronavirus pandemic? In an interview with Kathimerini, Martin Lodge, professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics’ Department of Government, tries to analyze what is at stake for governments, as well as the impact of the crisis on their political future.

What will determine the effectiveness of a government in managing this crisis?

It is difficult to tell. On the one hand, there will be the most immediate issues – how governments are seen to have supported their health services from not collapsing, or how one country compares with others in terms of death rates and economic/social consequences; on the other hand, there are also more long-term issues: will the rescue package avoid complete economic collapse, and how quickly will social and economic life return, and will governments appear competent and steer society through the next few months? Finally, there are also the indirect things, such as whether people get access to food and other essentials. 

Do crises like this usually strengthen or weaken a government?

Crises are supposed to be the hour of the executive. This might appear so at the moment. However, it depletes resources and as the pandemic and other crises keep on going, governments can quickly weaken. The strain on politicians is after all also very considerable. 

Which forces of the political spectrum are likely to be favored through this crisis? How is the current situation affecting the influence of the populist parties?

At the moment, populist parties have very little to contribute. But one can see how populist politicians seek to generate “us versus them” images about who was “responsible” for the pandemic. I am not sure that this will attract much, but one can’t exclude some populism in the future, especially about issues regarding resource distribution. 

What characteristics should a leader have today?

This is impossible to say. My own preference is for someone who is clear in the message, acknowledging the painfulness of decisions, and modest, given the uncertainty about the future. Politicians that try to pretend that they are “better” or “more informed” in their decision-making than other countries are charlatans. 

Should we expect political rearrangements after the end of the crisis? If so, in which direction?

This is impossible to say. There might be a shift towards realizing that efficiency in calculating resource allocations in health services may not be the best way forward – so the trade-offs between making decisions between efficiency, fairness and “spare capacity” will become more stark. There will hopefully be a realization that the immediate renationalization has to give way to reinforced transboundary cooperation to support economic and societal recovery. But all this will depend on how deep and prolonged the pandemic and the recession are going to be.

Quarantine measures create a complicated situation. How can one combine the protection of public health with the protection of the economy, under these circumstances? Is it practically feasible?

This is a political choice. The current preference for public health (that I share) will increasingly be challenged by questions about how to “recover” economically. So the debate will be about how to “bring back” society – whether it is in terms of opening up schools or economic activity again. At present, given the largely indifferent nature in which the virus can affect us, the public health argument is predominant.