Coronavirus: The Politics

Coronavirus, and the anxiety it provokes, have spread far beyond China. More than 1,200 additional cases are now confirmed across more than 30 countries. Fears are growing that the outbreak has reached the early stages of a global pandemic, because infections in South Korea, Italy, and Iran have no apparent connection to China, where the first reported cases emerged.

Alongside its obvious public health and economic effects, coronavirus is also shaking up politics—especially in a few countries where governments have good cause to worry how citizens will judge their performance.


In South Korea, there are now hundreds of confirmed cases, and President Moon Jae-in must worry that his handling of the crisis will become a central issue in parliamentary elections scheduled for April 15. The political stakes were high well before coronavirus appeared in the headlines. If his Democratic Party of Korea performs poorly, Moon may soon find himself a lame duck.

In Italy, tens of thousands of people in northern provinces have been quarantined. A government composed of awkward political bedfellows, the Five Star Movement and Democratic Party, wants to avoid early elections that might well oust both from power. As public anxiety rises, they'll have to prove they can stop squabbling and work together to manage this metastasizing problem.

In Iran, an embattled government admits the virus has become a "national problem," even as it denies charges that it's hiding the true number of infections and deaths. This government was already contending with the impact of US sanctions on an enfeebled economy, the public admission that Iran's military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, and record low turnout in national elections that many say were manipulated to boost conservative regime loyalists. Now coronavirus has given the public another reason to question its competence.

In the United States, Trump administration officials are reportedly discussing the impact of a potential outbreak in the US on public health, US markets, and the president's re-election prospects. Yesterday, Trump backed off a plan to house American coronavirus patients in Alabama.

Fear and loathing

It's too early to know whether we're heading toward a global pandemic. For now, more than 99 percent of deaths have occurred in China. But credible (and potentially deadly) threats to public health can have big political and economic impacts even if the worries turn out to have been exaggerated.

A few observations:

Fake news feeds the fear. Last week, residents of a small town in Ukraine attacked a bus carrying 72 people, 45 of them Ukrainian citizens, who had been evacuated from China. This fury was triggered by an email campaign, which Ukrainian officials say originated outside the country, spreading the false rumor that the passengers had been infected. None had.

The anger is usually targeted at foreigners. Social media have both spread and highlighted coronavirus-related xenophobic attacks on Asians in many countries. There are leaders in a number of countries who have argued in recent years for tighter border controls and a country-first approach to crisis. In that sense, coronavirus may help them.

The true political impact of coronavirus will be tough to measure. Under normal circumstances, angry citizens vent their fury through public protest. We've seen plenty of that in countries in every region of the world over the past year. But this is hardly the moment when your average angry citizen wants to be part of a crowd.

Brazil's governors take on Bolsonaro: We've previously written about the tensions between local and national governments over coronavirus response, but few places have had it as bad as Brazil. As COVID-19 infections surged in Brazil, the country's governors quickly mobilized – often with scarce resources – to enforce citywide lockdowns. Brazil's gangs have even risen to the occasion, enforcing strict curfews to limit the virus' spread in Rio de Janeiro. But Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has mocked the seriousness of the disease and urged states to loosen quarantines in order to get the economy up and running again. "Put the people to work," he said this week, "Preserve the elderly; preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that." In response, governors around the country – including some of his allies – issued a joint letter to the president, begging him to listen to health experts and help states contain the virus. The governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, has even threatened to sue the federal government if Bolsonaro continues to undermine his efforts to combat the virus' spread.

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The major outbreaks of coronavirus in China, Europe, and the United States have garnered the most Western media attention in recent weeks. Yesterday, we went behind the headlines to see how Mexico and Russia are faring. Today, we'll look at three other potential hotspots where authorities and citizens are now contending with the worst global pandemic in a century.

Start with India. For weeks, coronavirus questions hovered above that other country with a billion-plus people, a famously chaotic democracy where the central government can't simply order a Chinese-scale public lockdown with confidence that it will be respected. It's a country where 90 percent of people work off the books— without a minimum wage, a pension, a strong national healthcare system, or a way to work from home.

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In the end, it took the coronavirus to break the year-long deadlock in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will still face corruption charges, but he has yet another new lease on political life, as he and political rival Benny Gantz cut a deal yesterday: Bibi will continue as prime minister, with Gantz serving as Speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. After 18 months, Gantz will take over as prime minister, but many doubt that will ever happen.

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With large parts of the American economy shuttered because of coronavirus-related lockdowns, the number of people filing jobless claims in the US last week exceeded 3.2 million, by far the highest number on record. Here's a look at the historical context. The surge in jobless claims, which may be an undercount, is sure to cause a spike in the unemployment rate (which tells you the percent of work-ready people who are looking for a job). At last reading in February, unemployment was at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent. Economists warn that it could reach 5.5 percent in the near term. Even that would be far lower than the jobless rates recorded during previous economic crises such as the Great Depression or the Great Recession. Have a look.