SMOKERS’ CORNER: POPULISTS AND PANDEMICS

Published September 3, 2023
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In the 14th century CE, a bubonic plague killed 75-200 million people in Europe. The plague drastically reduced Europe’s population. This triggered some significant economic, political and social changes in the continent.

In these changes, historians have found the foundational roots of what would come to be defined as the ‘middle classes’. These changes also shaped two of the most significant periods in European history: the ‘Renaissance’, followed by the ‘Age of Reason’.

The Renaissance was a period of revival that pulled Europe out of the so-called ‘dark ages’ and put it on the path of modernity, as expressed by the scientific, economic, political and cultural expressions of the Age of Reason, or the ‘Enlightenment’. The early manifestations of the middle classes were at the centre of both the epochs, especially of the Enlightenment.

To the historian David Herlihy, the impact of the plague ignited ‘the rise of the West’. According to the political scientist Ronald Rogowski, the sudden shortage of agricultural labour raised real wages and land-owning elites were weakened. In a 2020 essay, the political scientist Andrew Latham posited that the changes unleashed by the plague ravaged feudalism. This eventually led to the emergence of a powerful middle class and laid the foundations of capitalism, secularism and democracy. 

The bubonic plague altered Europe socially and politically. Did the Covid-19 pandemic have any similar effect on the world?

In 2022, the University of Cambridge published a detailed study of the political impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed over six million people between 2020 and early 2023. But this pandemic took place in a world that was very different from the one that the bubonic plague devoured in the 14th century. 

From the 18th century onwards, various fields of science and economics advanced rapidly. By the late 20th century, the majority of regions were established democracies, and those that weren’t, were transitioning into becoming democracies. The medicinal sciences eradicated numerous diseases that had once seemed ‘incurable’. In 2019, the global average life expectancy stood at 72.6 years. In the 14th century, it was less than 60. It fell to 45 during the plague. 

But in the 2010s, trust in democracy and in political leaders had begun to plummet, mainly because of the 2008 global economic slide. Governments in developed countries bailed out the banks and large corporations to save the economy from collapsing. But this caused resentment among the middle classes, who lamented that political and economic elites were using democracy to serve and protect their own interests. Similar sentiments surfaced in developing countries as well. 

These sentiments were cleverly exploited by maverick politicians to barge into mainstream politics through populist theatrics and rhetoric. They positioned themselves as ‘anti-elitists’, even though, ironically, they too belonged to elite segments of the society. Thus emerged a string of populist leaders in various countries, promising to become the voice of the ‘hardworking’ and exploited middle-income groups.

Populists on the right used extreme expressions of nationalism, xenophobia and religious chauvinism to climb to power. These included Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Janez Janša in Slovenia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, John Magufuli in Tanzania, Boris Johnson in the UK, Viktor Orbán in Hungry, Narendra Modi in India, Imran Khan in Pakistan and Giorgia Meloni in Italy. 

Populists on the left positioned themselves as (rhetorical and equally theatrical) champions of social justice, anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism. Leaders in this regard included Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Andrés López in Mexico. 

According to the Cambridge report, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic did not restore the floundering trust in democracy. But the study found that the pandemic did manage to roll back the populist wave that swept across the 2010s. Between 2020 and 2023, populists were ousted from power in countries such as the US, UK, Slovenia, Brazil, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. An early 2023 report by the Tony Blair Institute shows that the number of populist leaders around the world has dropped significantly. 

So what did the Covid-19 pandemic do to roll back the once galloping populist juggernaut? According to the Cambridge study, most populist leaders badly mishandled the pandemic. They were extremely slow to respond, and some even underplayed the seriousness of the Covid-19 virus. Therefore, the public considered populist leaders to be less trustworthy sources of virus-related information. 

The pandemic fostered a sense of shared purpose in most people. This somewhat reduced political polarisation that populists often exploit to bolster their politics. A decrease in polarisation hampered the efforts of populists to continue mobilising support for themselves.

Secondly, in certain regions headed by populist governments, some rebalancing of wealth took place, as people escaped cities overrun with the virus. In Europe and the US, Covid-19 border closures stopped migration and globalised trade more effectively than any populist government. 

Trust in technocrats, especially medical experts and scientists, saw an increase. This negated the populist scepticism against these. Some populist leaders were actually seen and heard popularising outright quackery to address the ‘flu’.  However, according to the report, an increase of trust in technocrats did not help in increasing the trust for electoral democracy. 

Yet, the findings of the report did observe mainstream politicians regaining at least some trust. One of the most interesting examples in this respect became quite visible in the politics of Pakistan’s largest city Karachi, which is also the capital of Sindh. The Sindh government that was headed by the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was the most active political party in trying to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the province and in its gigantic and congested capital. 

During the peak of the pandemic, the mainstream Islamist party the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) too made itself highly visible in Karachi. Another major party in the city, the Mohajir-nationalist Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was part of Khan’s coalition government in the centre. Khan underplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and tried to roll back the Sindh government’s many pandemic-related policies.

Indeed, unlike Trump, Khan’s regime finally did come around to recognise the magnitude of the pandemic. But by then, vaccines had become available and the PPP and JI were the ones who managed to place themselves firmly in the immediate memories of most Karachiites. This then encouraged both the parties to expand their presence in the city that had largely voted for Khan’s populist PTI and the MQM during the 2018 general elections.

But in early 2023, during the highly anticipated local elections in Karachi, PPP won the largest number of seats, followed by the JI. PTI was routed. 

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 3rd, 2023

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