Across the world, the impact of the pandemic that originated from China has been far from uniform. Many elements mediate the extent to which the COVID-19 virus affects a specific nation, so before pointing out what Philippine President Duterte got right, let me first lay out these important qualifiers. First, there is the element of geography, and likely climate, playing an important role.
In the European Union, where travel restrictions were close to nonexistent, Italy’s neighbors, including Belgium, were hit hard, despite having among the most sophisticated policy interventions.
Latest studies show that the virus, not dissimilar to SARS almost two decades ago, has a shorter lifespan outside the human body in hot and humid locations. University of Connecticut researchers Cory Merow and Mark Urban argue that “ultraviolet light was most strongly associated with lower COVID-19 growth rates,” and that, in the absence of policy intervention, “COVID-19 will decrease temporarily during summer, rebound by autumn, and peak next winter.”
Then there is the “super spreader” phenomenon, with Italy football team Atalanta’s return game against Spain’s Valencia likely contributing to, among other major events and factors, the massive spread of the plague to neighboring Spain. Moreover, as demographic experts at Oxford University have shown, high fatality rates in Italy were partly a function of the proportion of elderly, smoking men, as well as the high frequency of social interaction between the young and elderly.
As the crisis in global cities such as New York and, increasingly even Singapore, has shown, high-density megacities could be also particularly vulnerable. Nonetheless, comprehensive studies such as the multivariable survey by Hong-Kong-based Deep Knowledge Group show that so far the most successful policy responses have come from democracies such as Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Australia.
Interestingly, none of these “model nations” are led by populists. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, and Germany’s Angela Merkel are widely seen as among the most competent leaders amid the ongoing pandemic.
Practically all populists have overseen among the worst outbreaks in their regions, from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the United States’ Donald Trump, who has overseen officially the world’s worst outbreak. The Philippines and Indonesia, both led by populists, have not fared well by regional standards.
The notable exception is Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose illiberal populism has been built on a toxic cocktail of xenophobia and border closures. This time, Orbán’s penchant for travel restrictions on foreigners may have worked in his country’s favor.
The common strain among practically all these populists is their far-too-long dismissiveness toward the crisis and, in the case of Bolsonaro, the outright denial and reckless firing of the country’s health minister. Up until the second week of March, President Duterte mocked anxieties over the pandemic with characteristic chutzpah: “Naniwala pala kayo!”
But as in life, politics also offers a chance for redemption. First of all, there has been an encouraging shift in the President’s language and policy toward the crisis. He has become frank about the true extent of the crisis, making it clear that unless we have reliable, mass-produced vaccine, there is no return to “normal”: “Ang COVID, hindi matatapos ‘yan. It will be here, it will stay until kingdom come pero kung may bakuna na, baka sakaling mauna tayo.”
Second, Mr. Duterte has shown the political will to extend a difficult and economically devastating lockdown in order to protect public health. This stands in stark contrast to Trump’s itch to restart the American economic engine.
Third, the President has shown a growing spirit of collaboration with scientists, most notable during his recent dialogue with former health secretaries, including at least one from the opposition.
Fourth, while Trump and Bolsonaro have been busy firing competent officials, Mr. Duterte has recruited competent and young technocrats to assist his ongoing efforts, such as Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles and new Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua.
And finally, the President, in a rare sign of national unity, has rightly shown due respect and appreciation for Vice President Leni Robredo, who has been an epitome of quiet dedication to frontliners and the country’s most vulnerable sectors in recent months. There is so much room for improvement, but there is also reason to hope.