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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | How politics makes it easier to impose a lockdown than lift it

The political benefits of reopening an economy tend to be outweighed by the risks of a health disaster in case it goes badly

In talking with friends about the lockdowns undertaken worldwide by governments in response to the covid-19 crisis, I have often invoked the analogy of unconventional monetary policies pursued after the global financial crisis of a decade ago. Like quantitative easing, a lockdown is easy enough to enter, but much harder to exit. Governments the world over are discovering that, having locked down, they have largely pushed the problem into the future, rather than solving it.

India’s case is perhaps unique among major countries in having locked down early, and then having started to open up after a long lockdown even though coronavirus cases continued to rise. Meanwhile, Western countries with generally successful lockdowns had locked down while infection cases were rising and then unlocked once cases began to fall.

There is a fascinating political economy relating to exits from lockdown. This has to do with, in technical jargon, an asymmetry in the payoffs facing political incumbents between unlocking going well and going poorly. If unlocking goes well, there is a small political upside, but, if it goes poorly—such as a large spike in cases, especially deaths—there is a very large downside risk. What is more, incumbents can always delay opening up, using the argument that this is out of a concern for public health and safety and prudence in the face of an ongoing crisis.

Examples abound, but let me take a case that I know rather well and am currently living through, the province of Ontario in Canada.

Ontario is the country’s largest province and its economic heartland. National elections can be won or lost depending on the outcome here. Politicians who succeed at the provincial level, if they play their cards right, may use that success as a springboard to federal politics. The stakes, thus, are very high. The current Conservative government of Ontario is led by Premier Doug Ford, a maverick conservative with a colourful background, who is sometimes described as “Canada’s Trump". A darling of his grassroots conservative base, and a leader who is often excoriated by a largely left-liberal class of political commentators, Ford has shown a remarkable degree of caution in re-opening the province: certainly much more than is preferred by his pro-business conservative base. In so doing, Ford has won (at least grudging) approbation from his erstwhile critics, a grumbling acceptance from his own party, and increased credibility as a serious political leader at the national level.

In other respects, the incentives of incumbent politicians during the current crisis are easier to understand. In most Western countries, governments have showered unprecedented fiscal largesse on their populations in an attempt to mitigate the economic costs both of the covid-19 pandemic itself and of the lockdown used to combat it. This has reinforced existing constituencies and created new ones for politicians looking forward to re-election.

Again, to use a Canadian example, the minority government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party, barely re-elected last year after his administration weathered allegations of corruption and his progressive image was tarnished by rediscovered photographs of him as a younger man donning “blackface", has prospered politically as a result of the crisis. Indeed, covid-19 may be seen as the wild card that will allow Trudeau to win a majority at some point—such is the apparent popularity of his spending schemes and disarray of opposition parties.

On the other side, mismanagement of the covid crisis could have deleterious electoral consequences for formerly popular governments. Thus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, whose Conservatives won a thumping election victory based on his promise to do “Brexit" at any cost, has been evidently wrong-footed by the current crisis. Not only did his controversial advisor, Dominic Cummings, break the government’s own lockdown rules, and was not sacked as a result, it is widely believed that the government was too slow and too lax in responding to the crisis; and then, when it did, failed to prepare well for the end of the British lockdown. There are grumbles of discontent among the back-benchers of Johnson’s own party, and it is conceivable that his premiership may end before his government’s electoral mandate runs its course.

Similarly, in the United States, the re-election prospects of sitting President Donald J. Trump seem to have worsened considerably, given the widespread sense there that he has mismanaged the crisis—reacting too slowly and then pushing a premature re-opening of the economy, as cases remain high in several American states. Trump’s strong suit, pre-crisis, had been a robust economy, but that now lies in tatters, given the havoc that the virus and the lockdown have wrought. Shorn of his trump card, Trump may lose the White House this fall, which would make him one of only three or four incumbents in US political history of the last century or more to fail a re-election bid. (The last was President George H.W. Bush, defeated in 1992 by former Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.)

As for India, its trajectory during the crisis has been different than elsewhere, and it is difficult to measure the political fallout, if any, of the mishandled lockdown: locking down too early, and without sufficient preparation, and then unlocking prematurely, as cases continue to rise. The popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, thus far, defied the political laws of gravity. Let us see if that continues.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist

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