The consequences of the pandemic will make politics more turbulent

W.HEN THE The plague killed a third of Europeans in the 14th century, the landowners had too few hands to till their land, allowing workers to demand better treatment. When the flu killed 20 million Indians (and an additional 30 million people worldwide) in 1918-19, it spread misery, which fueled Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to end British colonial rule. Pandemics can turn politics upside down. A study carried out in 133 countries between 2001 and 2018 shows that political unrest reaches its peak two years after the start of a typical epidemic. If so, 2022 will be a bumpy year.

Globally, unrest increased 10% in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, despite almost every country restricting public gatherings. Some citizens accuse their governments of failing to contain the virus. Others complain of severely enforced, economically ruinous lockdowns. Some believe that the vaccines that governments are urging them to take are harmful.

The many protests that erupted in 2021 had many causes, but Covid-19 has usually been an aggravating factor. Rioters in South Africa were annoyed not only about the imprisonment of an ex-president, but also about the pandemic-related unemployment. Protesters in Belarus and Thailand not only called for democracy, but also for better health care.

In 2022, the risk of turbulence is greatest in middle-income countries. The rich world is largely vaccinated. The very poor have so many problems that the coronavirus is just one of a long, gloomy list. In contrast, citizens of middle-income countries expect decent public services and are frustrated. They know the wealthy were vaccinated first, including the local elite who flew abroad for their vaccinations. You are understandably impatient that the vaccine is temptingly out of reach for millions.

Elections could create such frustrations overflowing. In Brazil, a populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, reacted gloomily to Covid-19, dismissing its severity, resisting masks, botched vaccine implementation and left thousands dead. His unpopularity suggests he will lose an election in October. But the country is polarized, he has told his supporters that the vote is being rigged and he insists that only God can remove him from office. A Trump-style uprising or worse cannot be ruled out.

The risk of turbulence is greatest in middle-income countries

The elections in Kenya in August will also be tense. The pandemic has destroyed jobs in tourism. The police killed curfews. Many are angry, and one candidate, William Ruto, stirs up anger. Despite being rich, he presents himself as a champion against dynasties such as the Kenyatta and Odinga families. Mr Ruto was charged with crimes against humanity related to electoral violence in 2007-08 (the charges were dropped after witnesses changed her testimony). More chaos is likely.

A populist dynasty may be emerging in the Philippines, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, who has intimidated the press and encouraged the extrajudicial assassinations of tens of thousands of suspected drug criminals. He cannot run for a second term in May and has vowed to retire from politics. But he has broken such promises before. He could run for vice president and his daughter could run for president.

In India, several regional votes could become hot spots. To distract attention from millions of deaths from Covid-19 and its own undermining of institutions, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party will, in 2022, stir up hatred against Muslims it has accused of engaging in “love jihad” against Hindu women to seduce and convert. The police will suppress opposition rallies citing the Covid-19 rules, but allow rallies and even violence BJP Supporter.

Some countries will have difficulty holding elections at all. In Lebanon, a poll is scheduled for May, but the economic collapse and general chaos could postpone it. Guinea and Mali, which have recently suffered coups, are urged to allow free and fair elections, but will not.

Nationalist resurgence

Elections in rich countries are becoming calmer but tense. Hungary’s newly reunited opposition could overthrow the increasingly corrupt government of Viktor Orban, who will use a mixture of dirty tricks and scare tactics to target immigrants and Jews to oppose the displacement. French voters will choose whether to stick with a liberal centrist, Emmanuel Macron, or take a leap into the dark with Marine Le Pen, a nationalist who wants to “de-Islamize” France. Mr Macron upset many voters, but with Covid-19 pulling out, he seems like a safer choice and is likely to win. The same is unlikely to be true of Australia’s ruling liberal-national (conservative) coalition. Efforts to keep Covid-19 infections to zero will be impossible to sustain and the left Labor Party will come to power in 2022.

To boost growth, keep people healthy, and stave off civil unrest, the smartest thing a government can do in 2022 is to introduce vaccines. Anti-Vaxxers will resist, but France and others have shown that insisting on vaccine passports when eating in restaurants can quickly change people’s minds. There shouldn’t be magic bullets in politics, but the coronavirus vaccines are coming frighteningly close.

Robert Guest: Foreign Editor, The Economist

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the heading “Ballots, Brawls and Magic Bullets”

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