Controlling the spread of disease

This subject has leapt into prominence since 2020.  The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic resulted in 2 million deaths in 2020 and a severe economic shock worldwide. The severity of the impact varied widely between countries.  It is too early to analyse this subject properly, half-way through 2021, but it is already clear that it raises several political issues:

Governments have constrained people’s individual liberty, to control the spread of the virus.  It is unclear to what extent compulsion, applying the force of the law, has been more effective than persuasion.

Compulsory lockdowns, shutting businesses and preventing people from working, have been very costly in economic terms and in affecting the quality of people’s lives – especially for younger people whose education and careers have been put on hold. 

Pandemic decision-making, as described earlier on this website, is complicated by trying to remain popular.  Politicians want to be seen to respond to the immediately visible deaths, which receive a lot of publicity in the short-term, but less attention is paid to the long-term reduction in people’s quality of lives and their early deaths: which might be the effects of stress, deprivation, or the delayed treatment of other diseases.

Older people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are younger.  Experts disagree about whether it is possible to protect the old whilst letting the young have more freedom.

Politicians have claimed to be guided by science, although in practice they must make a judgement about whether people will comply with any regulations that are introduced.

Vaccination has been very successful in reducing the number of deaths, but questions have been raised as to whether it can be or should be compulsory.  The issue has become politicised.  “Republicans are less likely than Democrats to get vaccinated”, for example, as described in an Economist report: Pandemic blame game.  Mask-wearing is similarly politicised.

The idea of vaccine passports has also proved to be politically divisive, as illustrated by a Reuters report: Thousands protest against COVID-19 health pass in France.

Rich countries have obtained more vaccines, and made more progress in vaccinating their populations, than poor countries.  This raises moral questions, and it creates practical problems.  It is unsurprising that politicians have prioritised their own countries, but the unchecked spread of the virus elsewhere can allow new variants to emerge which might be harder to control.

The role of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been contentious.  It has provided expert advice to every country in the world, and it has helped to distribute vaccines to poor countries through the COVAX scheme, but it relies on voluntary contributions from governments; it has been accused of bending to political pressure from China for example.

(This is an archived page: newly added since the publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  The latest versions are at book contents).