COVID-19 and limits of political accountability

With some leaders getting off lightly, the deeper challenges to democratic control of politicians need to be understood

Updated - December 23, 2020 12:16 am IST

Published - December 23, 2020 12:02 am IST

The year no one saw coming — 2020 — and that few will mourn as it passes into the history books, has upended a great many truisms of political life. Writing in this daily, ( Troughs and crests in the pandemic response , April 25, 2020), I described the COVID-19 pandemic as a governance stress test that would expose how poorly prepared the world’s governments were. Eight long months later, the results are indisputable: they failed the exam, and how. Not all failures were equal though. Facing the hardest test imaginable, some struggled despite sincere efforts — see Japan, Germany, Norway, for example. But less forgiveable are the failures of leaders who quit immediately, resorting to mocking the exam and pretending that it was a figment of other people’s imaginations, to burying their heads in the sand even as the evidence of their abdication of responsibility was witnessed by body bags stacked in freezer trucks outside hospitals whose morgues were overflowing.

Spectacular failures, response

This being 2020, though, nothing is as we might have predicted. Thus, not only did some of the world’s most powerful leaders fail spectacularly to do their sworn duty to protect all their citizens, but they also paid little to no cost for abandoning us. If anything, in some instances, they appear to have been rewarded for their defiance of reality and ignorant embrace of quack science and alternative facts. The presidential elections in the United States frame a fascinating paradox: even as much of the world stared aghast at the abject failure of the world’s most powerful nation to mount any resistance to the novel coronavirus, many Americans decided to vote for an incumbent under whose contemptuous watch as many lives are being lost daily as were killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.

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In other countries, too, leaders enjoy uncontested popularity even as the virus scoffs at their efforts to contain it. Across the Atlantic, Boris Johnson, whose apparent haplessness in high-stakes negotiations is exceeded only by the incoherence of his coronavirus response, swung between flirting with pursuing herd immunity in March to, now, just three days after calling just such a decision ‘inhumane’, “cancelling Christmas” for the United Kingdom.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has elevated his attacks on science to levels defying parody. Last week, while stating irresponsibly his refusal to be vaccinated, even as his own government has launched a national vaccination campaign, Mr. Bolsonaro suggested that the vaccine might turn people into crocodiles.

In India, draconian lockdowns of limited efficacy and the sight of millions of our fellow countrymen desperately walking hundreds of miles back to their villages, the scapegoating of minority communities and the dubious distinction of having the second largest number of cases, have scarcely dented Prime Minister Modi’s popularity, or, vide Bihar, even the power of his brand.

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And, then, of course, is Vladimir Putin, who has been little seen, or heard from, even as the virus rages unchecked across Russia whose citizens are voting with their feet against a vaccine whose efficacy and safety are inadequately understood given the opacity of Russia’s protocols.

Mr. Putin is a dictator, cloaked in the flimsiest veneer of legitimacy granted by a fawning media and by ritualised elections in which he faces no credible opposition. And, yes, Mr. Trump lost decisively in November, though U.S. President-elect Joe Biden must confront the reality of a nation deeply divided, with almost half the population grasping at conspiracy theories about the election and questioning the science of vaccines, with a significant minority elevating Mr. Trump to cult-leader status. But Mr. Modi, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Bolsonaro retain the reins of power firmly. How come? Why are citizens willing to reward populist leaders who fail their people?

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Analysis and propositions

The question requires us to confront the limits of political accountability in democracy, and to grapple with deeper, even existential, challenges to democratic control of politicians. Three propositions frame this analysis. First, while folk theories of democracy privilege retrospective accountability, that is the notion that voters use elections to render judgement about the incumbent’s record, the reality is we vote prospectively, granting leaders we believe represent people like us a mandate to govern in our name. Put differently, we vote against candidates who we fear will elevate our opponents to our disadvantage.

A vote for Mr. Trump in 2020 was as much a rejection of some imagined socialist hellscape to be delivered by a Biden administration as it was an endorsement of Mr. Trump or his record in office. In Bihar, Mr. Modi campaigned that voting for his opponents was a vote for those against people saying ‘ Bharat Mata ki Jai ’ or ‘ Jai Shri Ram ’. Populist leaders grasp this visceral insight, offering voters stark choices between good, honest patriots battling anti-national elements, and the ‘ tukde tukde gang’. Nuanced, evidence-based consideration of policy alternatives might set the pulses of academics and pundits racing, but is a feeble antidote to the addictive jingoism peddled by populist demagogues.

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Second, disease, unlike war, does not offer a clear enemy to target. Public health advice that emphasised the need for personal responsibility — stay home, wear a mask, wash your hands — underestimated the challenge of collective action predicted on hundreds of millions of individual responses. If each of us is responsible for our own health, then getting sick is our own fault. Why should those unafraid of a mere virus be required to sacrifice? Do not blame us for your pain, blame China, rang the coordinated messages of government-funded IT cells and bot armies, amplifying racist and xenophobic memes across social media.

Fading empathy

Third, the coronavirus pandemic reveals the poverty of our collective ability to empathise with those we do not see. Like the uncounted deaths caused by air pollution, heat waves, or malnutrition, those dying from COVID-19 do so out-of-sight, alone. Reduced to data points, their deaths affect us less each day. Innovative data visualisation efforts initiated by news and academic organisations, once bookmarked in our web browsers and religiously referenced for daily updates, are now barely read by a global public inured to more data.

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Exponential growth is near impossible for the human brain to comprehend: in March, that Italy had crested 50,000 cumulative cases was international news; today alone the U.S. will record four times as many new cases. But even as the victims of the virus die considerately out of plain view, the economic devastation wrought by lockdowns is felt by us all. Grateful though we may be for being spared illness, we attribute that good fortune to our own responsible choices. But the loss of income and livelihood must be blamed on someone, and the same leaders whose indecision and ineptitude make draconian shutdowns necessary, redirect our anger elsewhere: on foreigners, on minorities, on globalists, on science, and especially on the institutions of government. Trust no one other than me, the populist incants, for I alone can save you.


Some action

If there is a bright side, it is that the playbook of blaming economic downturns on others is limited in its efficacy. Citizens might be willing to give politicians an ATKT [Allowed To Keep Terms] for inadequate responses to a once-in-a-century pandemic that humbled even the richest, most powerful nations of the world, but prolonged economic suffering demands government remedy more immediately. Feverish efforts to squeeze all available policy levers to stimulate economies reveal the urgency politicians are feeling to deliver something, anything, to increasingly restive populations. It will be cold comfort to the dead and grieving, but perhaps the people will eventually have the last laugh over the populists. One must hope so, for without some measure of accountability, democracy loses its power, and so do the people.

Irfan Nooruddin is the Director of the South Asia Center (@ACSouthAsia) at the Atlantic Council and Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington DC

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