by Alfredo Saad-Filho
Progress in Political Economy | July 23, 2020
The spectacular failures of Brazil, the UK and the USA during the COVID-19 pandemic offer valuable lessons on what must never happen again: wish away the virus, minimise the potential impact of a pandemic on public health and the economy, delay inevitable lockdowns, the list goes on. They also shed a powerful light on the root causes of the devastation.
The first step is to recognise the immensity of the catastrophe (see Table 1).
Table 1: The impact of the pandemic
|Brazil||UK||USA||China||Cuba||Germany||New Zealand||South Korea||Taiwan||Vietnam|
|Cases per million||8,772.5||4,266.0||9,984.6||59.1||214.2||2,374.7||247.6||262.9||18.9||3.8|
|Deaths per million||353.9||677.6||408.5||3.3||7.7||109.5||4.7||5.6||0.3||0.0|
|GDP growth in 2020 (estimate)||-9.1||-10.2||-8.0||1.0||n.a.||-7.8||-7.2||-2.1||-4.0||2.7|
In summary, the human disaster in our selected countries is unlikely to be compensated by a shallower economic downturn – quite the contrary, they are likely to do worse than average – dismantling the argument that protecting the economy should be a priority and ‘if some pensioners die [as a consequence], too bad’.
Our selected cases (the ‘Threesome of Calamity’) share obvious features centred on leadership: they are governed by arrogant, selfish, self-promoting, pompous, rude and patronising buffoons, displaying symptoms of histrionic personality disorder if not psychopathy, and bearing overtly authoritarian ambitions to break and remake the Constitution and the apparatus of the state. Surprisingly, they are uninterested in building up mass support movements, preferring instead to cultivate adoring but disorganised fans: Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party but has no use for it beyond the electoral machinery and fund-raising; Boris Johnson has no time for the Conservative Party that he remade in his Brexity image, and Jair Bolsonaro does not even belong to a party (his attempt to create the ‘Alliance for Brazil’ stalled miserably). Continuing: they lie brazenly and compulsively, claim undeserved merits, deny evident truths, proclaim the non-existent and pour abuse on doubters, fact-checkers, holders of different views, scientists, and women. They are short on humility, impervious to remorse and quick to claim that whatever they do is ‘best in the world’, even when it has failed or even backfired. Despite their authoritarian instincts these leaders remain slaves to the electoral process: everything hinges on the next election, anxiously. And more: they pick calculated fights with the media, which guarantees visibility even if under the unflattering light of methodical criticism (which, paradoxically, tends to consolidate the allegiance of their fans). The commentariat has struggled to account for their popularity despite daily trespasses against ‘civilised’ politics.
This combination of features proved lethal under the stresses of the pandemic. Risks were downplayed because precaution would look bad, suggest weakness or impair their electoral prospects. Bluster, denials and lies had sufficed in the past, but the coronavirus was unbending. Public health responses were delayed because the state machinery stalled when it was confronted by a challenge unrelated to the promotion of the Leader. Playing on the defence did not come naturally to our exemplars, and they fumbled. Despite their telegenic prowess they were unable to feign sympathy for the Other or express pity, shame or remorse, and came out callous; they could not expound on the complexities of the pandemic, and looked ignorant; and they could not lead a purposeful institutional response, and looked clueless. Trump and Bolsonaro overtly undermined their own health experts as they peddled quack cures, while Johnson’s experts ‘disappeared’ as soon as they went off-message. Worse, accustomed to politics as war (Remain vs Leave; Tories vs Corbyn; gun owners and White supremacists vs gun controls and BLM protesters; Obamagate vs Russiagate; Lula vs Lava Jato; traditional media vs evangelical start-ups, and so on), and enmeshed in battles against the ‘deep state’, our leaders found themselves unable to address COVID-19, an adversary that did not respond to the politics of division and resentment.
These dysfunctions were not merely due to individual incompetence or obtuseness; they are revealing of a deeper political malaise which has affected our three countries especially badly. As the transition to neoliberalism restructured economic and social reproduction in the UK since the mid-1970s; in the USA since the end of that decade, and in Brazil since the late 1980s, it created a large array of economic and social ‘losers’: millions of skilled jobs were eliminated; entire professions vanished or were exported, and employment opportunities in the public sector worsened because of privatisations and ‘retrenching’. Job stability declined in the formal sector, and pay, conditions and welfare protections tended to deteriorate for everyone. The institutionalisation of a neoliberal democracy furthered the alienation of the ‘losers’. Their concerns were ignored, and their resentments, fears and hopes were captured by the mainstream media and displaced into ethical conflicts between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, framed by commonsensical notions of ‘dishonesty’ at the individual level and, collectively, by visions of ‘undue privilege’ granted by the state to the undeserving poor, women, minorities, foreigners, and foreign countries.
This process corroded two pillars of capitalism. First, the enlightenment commitment to science: not only were universities delegitimised (‘Mickey Mouse courses’, ‘overpaid managers’, and high student debt – all due to government policy – as well as ‘left-wing indoctrination’ and ‘cancel culture’, to be repressed). Along similar lines, the neoliberal cult of the individual fed the individualisation of truth itself: it is my right to believe that the Earth is flat and no pointy-head has greater authority than me on any subject; no one can impose masks, vaccines or lockdowns on me; the coronavirus is a hoax because I say so, and so on, in a bonfire of certainties that, if unchecked, would consume geostationary satellites, long-distance transport, the internet, statistical medicine, water treatment plants and much else.
Second, democratic politics, that lost both legitimacy and efficacy because of the exclusion of economic matters from debate: under neoliberalism, the superiority of the market and the imperative of inflation control could not be contested or even debated, and the institutions of the state were remade in order to insulate neoliberal policies from the vagaries of electoral accountability. The law enshrined deficit ceilings, inflation targets and privatisations, while a barrage of propaganda promoted financialisation and overconsumption as the essence of the ‘good life’. Alienation inevitably followed and, given the earlier destruction of the left, a political vacuum emerged in which the opposition dissolved into anomie, enraptured by ‘spectacular’ authoritarian leaders and overwhelmed by the far right. These destructive tendencies were intensified by the Great Financial Crisis, starting in 2007, which culminated in a decade of ‘fiscal austerity’ that was justified by the need to pay for the state policies to salvage finance but, in reality, rolling out further destructions of sociability and new waves of social reengineering. The rise of ‘spectacular’ leaders is, then, neither a temporary aberration nor a reversible political excrescence but, rather, a by-product of the failure of financialisation, the decay of neoliberal democracy and the delegitimation of dominant ideologies and modes of representation of reality.
This unstable political dynamic was overwhelmed by COVID-19. Brazil, the UK and the USA watched in puzzled horror as the coronavirus, impervious to arrogance, bluster and screeching denials, cut short tens of thousands of lives. In the meantime, their populations were denied knowledge that a whole host of countries and regions had managed to contain the pandemic; scandalously, the (relative) successes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were glossed over in England, as if they were either unremarkable or insignificant, but then England has always minimised smaller nations, starting with the nearest ones.
Multiple experiences of success against the coronavirus are available. They show that different combinations of state capacity, rapid response, universality and capillarity of health systems, resources, technology and social control could stem the coronavirus: the disaster was not inevitable; every death must be accounted for. In contrast, the Threesome of Calamity displayed a deliberate lack of preparation, delivered insufficient resources to their health systems, promoted disorganised and contradictory policies, chose poor strategies of implementation and prioritised staggering corruption to the preservation of life. The pandemic shows not only that the wages of arrogance is death; it also shows that death was the avoidable consequence of a declining modality of neoliberalism in three long-suffering countries.
 This quote has been attributed to Dominic Cummings, the British Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser (a title especially created for him); it was later not only denied that Cummings had entertained such views, but that he actually drove the case for lockdown in Britain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/03/22/no-10-forced-deny-claims-dominic-cummings-said-pensioners-die/).
 The counter-example is Angela Merkel’s precise explanation of the pandemic; see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/16/angela-merkel-draws-on-science-background-in-covid-19-explainer-lockdown-exit
 See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/05/05/exclusive-government-scientist-neil-ferguson-resigns-breaking/, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-chief-nurse-dominic-cummings-ruth-may-daily-briefing-downing-street-a9562741.html and https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/coronavirus-latest-health-experts-banished-downing-street-briefings-explained-dominic-cummings-445004
 This did not always end well; see, for example, https://www.abc15.com/news/coronavirus/30-year-old-dies-after-attending-covid-party-thinking-virus-was-a-hoax