World Politics

How the virus turned politics on its head

Nowhere is the sheer uniqueness of the current era illustrated more dramatically than in politics. COVID-19 has transformed the fortunes of figures such as US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison.

The radical change in politics

Early this year, Trump was riding high. The US economy was growing, the Democrats seemed to be on the verge of nominating left-wing, and pretty much nationally unelectable, Senator Bernie Sanders as their candidate for the November 3 presidential election, and Trump’s poll numbers were improving. COVID-19 was ravaging the Chinese province of Hubei and its principal city, Wuhan, but the contagion, and its mounting death toll, seemed far away.

Fast forward to the present and the contagion has transformed America. At the time of writing, the US death toll from the pandemic totalled 94,661, accounting for almost 30 per cent of the global death toll of 332,425.

New York’s normally bustling Times Square nearly empty because of the virus shutdown.  Bloomberg

Meanwhile, America’s so-called “containment” policy is in total disarray, with various states in uncoordinated phases of lockdown and reopening, and a fragmented health system unable to cope, particularly in major urban centres like New York.

Trump’s obvious incapacity to deal with the situation became clear from the point when COVID-19 infection rates took off in the US in mid-March. Just before he visited the Atlanta-based US Centres for Disease Control (CDC). As Edward Luce has written in the Financial Times, “it came midway between the time he was still denying the coronavirus posed a threat and the moment he said he had always known it could ravage America.”

Just before his visit, Trump said US infections would be “close to zero” and “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Giving new meaning to the Yiddish word chutzpah just a few days later, he remarked: “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

That was then. Now US hospitals are desperate for ventilators, trucks with freezers at the back have been commandeered as mobile morgues and queue outside hospitals to pick up COVID-19-ravaged bodies, and heavily armed, far-right protesters are taking to the streets to vent against local lockdowns in states like Michigan and Texas.

As former US diplomat William Burns put it, “America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem in global incompetence.”

Or, as the respected British medical journal The Lancet editorialised, the Trump administration is “obsessed with magic bullets – vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear.

Now the all-but-nominated Democratic presidential candidate is Joe Biden, a man whose memory has been questioned, but is a former vice president, one-time senator, moderate, and is leading Trump in the polls.

Just to top it off, Trump has escalated his war of words with China, accusing the Middle Kingdom of being a serial liar, the cause of the contagion, and responsible for “thousands” of deaths. China shot back with a verbal fusillade, including words like “evil,” “lunacy,” “shameless,” “sick and twisted”.

In an era when the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a veritable contagion of verbal histrionics, this measures up pretty well against China’s denunciation of Australia as a “joke” because it claims credit for successfully, if somewhat ham-fistedly, pushing for an international inquiry into the origins, causes of and handling of the crisis.

This is despite the fact the probe is being headed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which Australia initially opposed.

Britain’s false sense of security

In Britain, meantime, the contrast between the pre-COVID 19 and the onset of the contagion is even more extreme.

As the pandemic ravaged other countries, the British were lulled into a sense of security with government assurances that all would be well in an island separated from the rest of Europe and with a National Health Service (NHS) that has been a hallmark of the British state since the end of World War II.

However, with a current infection total of 252,246 and a death toll of 36,124 at the time of writing, Britain’s COVID-19 scorecard is, in fact, worse than America’s, after factoring in the difference in population.

Inflicting a near-record defeat on the hapless UK Labour Party in December, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson then had a personal near-death experience at the hands of the pestilence, but is now in the political doldrums because of Britain’s mishandling of the pandemic.

But nowhere has the COVID-19 factor transformed politics as much as in Australia.

Morrison’s moment of redemption

In late January, Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison was struggling after an ordinary performance during the nation’s bushfire disaster – marked, among other things, by taking a family holiday in Hawaii at the height of the crisis.

However, since the arrival of the pestilence, Morrison has not just succeeded in “flattening the curve,” he has been ahead of it.

Calling out COVID-19 as a “pandemic” ahead of the WHO, shutting the borders, forming the national cabinet with state premiers, leading the mandating of strict lockdown and social-distancing provisions, keeping the death toll down to a comparably, astonishingly low 101 and announcing temporary fiscal support measures totalling $214 billion, Morrison is, politically speaking, on a roll.

A test of sorts is looming with the byelection in the traditionally bellwether seat of Eden Monaro. Covering coastal and high plains regions in southern NSW, this regional seat has been vacated by the popular Labor MP Mike Kelly but has been held by both parties over the years.

As Scott Morrison has dominated the headlines, Labor struggles to find any political oxygen. According to some pundits, the ALP could even lose the seat, reversing a tradition of anti-government swings in byelections.

But politics is a strange game. As Morrison’s shock win in last May’s federal election shows, forecasting results is a hazardous exercise, particularly during the time of the contagion.

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