Politics Analysis

COVID-19 crisis management fodder for political gamers

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

It appears COVID-19 crisis management policies have impacted voting behaviour — all the more relevant given incumbents campaign primarily to retain their seats. Pablo Arija Prieto, Professor Francesco PaolucciMarcello Antonini and Andrew Greenland report.

AFTER ALMOST two years since the beginning of the vaccination roll-out, COVID-19 has become a minor topic on the political agenda.

The "culture of responsibility" introduced by the Morrison Government that placed responsibility on individuals to take protective actions against COVID-19 rather than governments implementing a "culture of control and mandates", has undermined state public health measures and attention to COVID risks.

The current Labor Government seems to be comfortable with this communication strategy. Despite Albanese having a dedicated webpage about 'Labor's Plan to Beat COVID-19' on his personal website, very few references to the pandemic and little messaging about third and fourth doses have been made since his election.

However, the virus has not lost its impetus or its ability to mutate.

Comparing the number of COVID deaths during winter 2022 (or summer in the Northern Hemisphere) versus the same period in 2020 and 2021, we observe that some countries – such as Australia, Italy and Spain – have recorded higher death tolls.

This striking evidence can be partially attributed to the lower level of restrictions in place, respect for basic hygiene measures and the latest mutation of the virus, which has become much more contagious than before and therefore more lethal in absolute terms.

Despite this, politicians in Australia and other Western countries do not seem to be alarmed. Even the vaccination coverage, used last year to claim political victory by most governments, has now become a negligible number in the political debate.

Despite this, booster uptake in many countries is below a safe level to protect the most vulnerable groups of the population or to stop further potential mutations of the virus for which existing vaccines might not be effective.

In Australia, only 72.2% of the population aged 16 and older got the booster compared to the 95.8% who completed the first cycle of vaccination. The situation is similar in Spain, where 85.2% of the total population got the full vaccination cycle but only 55% got the booster. Italy does relatively better with 73% of the population getting the booster. However, this can be partially explained by the booster initially being mandatory — though this policy has now been removed.

The graph below depicts the total COVID-19 deaths per 1 million inhabitants between 20 June and 21 September in 2020, 2021 and 2022:

Source: Authors' elaboration on data from Our World in Data

It is fair, then, to ask why politicians have not kept a high level of alert now that "the end is in sight" as World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said.

One motivation is that during these uncertain times, political leaders may act opportunistically to increase their popularity among voters and gain consensus to be (re-)elected.

As we have observed during the pandemic, crisis management policies have an impact on voting behaviour and this becomes even more relevant when elections are imminent and incumbents are campaigning to retain their seats. 

Compared to opposition leaders, incumbents have a comparative advantage since they are responsible for the management of this crisis and the communication around it.

However, ineffective management and/or communication can twist the support even for the most popular leader. This is because crises and their policy response affect the population in their (most) private sphere (for example, individual freedom, behaviours, etcetera) making the pool very sensitive to any (un)successful measures.

Both New South Wales and Victoria face elections in the next 12 months. Neither government wants to risk its consensus with unpopular policies.

In the following section, we discuss the association between policy responses and political consensus using the example of the pandemic and the experience of three countries that changed their governments during its management: Australia, Italy and the UK.

By 15 April 2020, Boris Johnson – who was acting cagey around the legitimacy of the COVID-19 issue – held the most popular government in decades.

In Italy, Giuseppe Conte achieved the largest share of supporters during the first two waves of the pandemic. In the Spanish Community of Madrid, the incumbent, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, triumphed again, winning the elections with an absolute majority in May 2021.

In the four state elections that took place in Australia during the pandemic, all of the incumbents succeeded over their rivals at the ballot boxes.

But are these electoral outcomes consistent with the death toll and infection rates? We can expect that government competency can influence electoral results, however, in Italy – one of the countries with the highest death rates in Europe – Conte has seen his overall approval rating soar. Madrid, the region holding the largest excess of deaths in all of Europe in 2020, is another example in which voters continued supporting the incumbent in the regional election.

The tension between the protection of public health and civil freedoms has been in the eyes of voters and incumbents are aware of their myopic sight. Prior to elections, governments at all levels generally increase public expenditure and cut taxes, and spending is shifted towards highly visible budget divisions. The policy agenda is prioritised, streets become clean as a whistle and not only fiscal but other policy decisions visible to citizens are subject to manipulation.

The response to the pandemic has also been part of the toolkit used by governments to take political advantage of their position during electoral times. The opportunistic behaviour of governments and its implications in pandemic management was observed in the strictness of policies implemented and in the prioritising of policies throughout the vaccination campaign.

Similar to other federalist countries, the vaccine roll-out and adoption of most containment measures in Italy, Spain and Australia are locally managed by exclusively regional government bodies.

These subnational administrations are responsible for the critical aspects of healthcare systems, including the purchase of medicines, emergency services and hospital management. Non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines are deemed as the core pillar in the effort to fight the virus and everybody is subject to the whims of politicians in their implementation.

Italian, Spanish and Australian politics have always been characterised by deep regional divides and the interaction between central and subnational administrations has proved particularly challenging.

During the COVID-19 crisis, there was no clear hierarchy and the central state struggled to impose a unitary line. The conflict of power between different governments influenced some of the choices behind the adoption of restrictions. However, central government opposition to certain regional-imposed measures was probably also driven by the ideological fight on the tradeoff between health and economics.

In Spain, while the Right-wing parties governing some Autonomous Communities stood up to protect the economic performance and civil freedoms by opening the country, the socialist coalition holding the power of the central administration embraced the protection and sustainability of the Spanish National Healthcare System.

In Australia, this was observed when then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison placed overt pressure on states to end lockdowns early, or when former Commonwealth Education Minister Dan Tehan attempted to induce private schools to open, despite state closure orders.

Commonwealth attacks tended to stress the impact of restrictions on economic performance and therefore frame the COVID-19 response as a dilemma between public health protection and economic performance.

These political tensions were highly visible during election times. For instance, Isabel Ayuso under the slogan of "liberty" while leading her campaign in the regional elections of Madrid, relied on her lax COVID restriction strategy to appeal to voters weary of restrictions imposed to fight the pandemic. This strategy worked with voters allowing her to govern again with 65 seats, up from 30 in 2019.

On 20 and 21 September 2020, citizens of seven Italian regions could cast their vote. However, one month after, on 25 October, Minister of Health Roberto Speranza introduced a new ministerial decree including new restrictive measures in force until 24 November. This decision might have been mainly motivated by the increase in infections which occurred after the summer, but also political fears could partially have triggered the time delay in adopting new restrictive measures.

During 2020, COVID-19 policy responses were similar across all Australian states and territories. However, in 2021, significant variations in COVID-19 policy responses between Australian states emerged resulting from a shift in the national consensus.

Two different strategies became apparent among territories and states such as Tasmania and Western Australia with low COVID-19 exposure, which in an election year adopted less strict restrictions.

States with higher coronavirus exposure and no elections in the immediate future such as New South Wales and Victoria used stricter policies including stay-at-home orders, remote learning and workplace closures for extended periods of time. These strategies might be partially determined by epidemiological factors, but also by demonstrated evidence of electoral strategies.

For instance, the Morrison Government's criticism of state responses and the Cabinet's partisan attacks on state governments during the pandemic was ranked third of the eight reasons why the Coalition lost the 2022 election.

The graph below depicts Australian states' and territories' stringency index values in 2021:

 Source: University of Oxford Blavatnik School of Government Working Paper 2022/046

On 16 September 2021, the center-Leftist Coalition in charge of the Italian Government approved one of the strictest anti-COVID measures in the world, making vaccination obligatory for all workers.

At that moment, people fully vaccinated in Italy accounted for 65% of the total population, a figure similar to its neighbouring countries — for example, the United Kingdom 65%, France 63% and Germany 62%.

On 3 and 4 October, two weeks after the announcement, Italian local elections took place. Fifteen of the 20 newly elected mayors belonged to the center-Left Coalition.

The vaccination campaign in Australia, which was a responsibility of the Commonwealth Government, was described as a 'failure in public administration' and the worst national public policy failure in modern Australian history, with delays in the vaccine rollout and a lack of national leadership.

The Government’s poor procurement decisions and lack of diversification of investments in vaccine suppliers contributed to Australia ranking last in the world in terms of the proportion of population vaccinated in the middle of 2021. The “incompetent management" of the Federal Government’s responsibilities during the pandemic was identified by Labor’s National Secretary as the second of eight reasons why the Coalition lost the 2022 election.

Strong political competition illuminated the mechanisms that linked policy decisions and electoral motivations during the handling of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the way incumbents perceived voters’ preferences and beliefs about the importance of restrictions for society could have partially determined the stringency of containment measures implemented and differences in vaccination roll-out.

Lastly, we must consider that the severity and efficiency of mitigation measures that were of great interest to the electorate may have been subject to fluctuations induced by electoral concerns and accept that scientific guidelines may not have had the expected weight in the equation for decision-makers.

There is no doubt that expert advice is frequently invoked during crises, but it cannot be denied that it is not always followed by governments.

It is hard to predict what will happen next. Nevertheless, governments will have to resort to policy innovations in managing the current and next generation of global crises and accept that the adoption of some interventions will elicit a certain level of discontent in the polls.

Pablo Arija Prieto is a research fellow at the University of Bologna, Italy.

Professor Francesco Paolucci is Professor of Health Economics & Policy at the Faculty of Business & Law, University of Newcastle and the School of Economics & Management, University of Bologna. You can follow Professor Paolucci on Twitter @dr_paolucci.

Marcello Antonini is a PhD candidate in health economics at the University of Newcastle. He is currently leading the VheP COVID-19 Vaccine Preferences Project.

Andrew Greenland is a research analyst with the Institute for Regional Futures and PhD candidate in economics at the University of Newcastle.

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