Were some political systems better positioned to beat the pandemic than others? “This covid epidemic may actually lance the boil of populism,” Francis Fukuyama, the acclaimed political philosopher, told the BBC last year. “I don’t think there’s any correlation between being a democracy and doing well or poorly [in dealing with the coronavirus]. But there’s definitely a correlation between being a populist leader and doing badly.”
Fukuyama made his diagnosis at a time when the United States under former president Donald Trump seemed the textbook example of pandemic management gone wrong. Case counts were soaring while the White House fumbled the federal response, feuded with state governors and cast doubt on the recommendations of public health experts and blame on foreign adversaries and domestic rivals alike. Chest-thumping nationalism of the Trumpist variety, the argument went, could offer little in the face of a pandemic that required sober technocratic judgment and international coordination.
A year later, Fukuyama’s diagnosis remains broadly accurate. The two current worst-hit major countries, Brazil and India, are governed by right-wing nationalists who have presided over hideous surges of the virus that overwhelmed hospital systems and filled cemeteries and crematoriums. Daily deaths are now in the thousands in both countries, with the real number in India likely far higher than the reported one.