Almost every country around the globe has been affected by Covid-19. As the virus spread, the political impact did too. Many governments and political leaders have been sharply criticized for allowing cases to increase and mishandling the virus. The Japanese government, for instance, was criticized for not declaring a national emergency sooner while the US government was criticized for inadequately testing its people in the early days of the pandemic. Some blame the World Health Organization for helping China hide crucial data.
A new study, which appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, shows that the approval ratings of political leaders increased in the early days of the pandemic. The authors explained that the results support a phenomenon called a rally ‘round the flag, which is used to explain a temporary rise in the popularity of a country’s political leader or governments during periods of war or international crisis.
Kai Chi Yam from the Department of Management and Organization at the National University of Singapore and colleagues wrote that they examine the effects of daily confirmed Covid-19 cases in a country on citizen’s support for their political leader through the first 120 days of 2020. Three datasets comprise the daily approval ratings (1,411,200) of the head of government from 11 countries, including the US, UK, Mexico, Japan, India, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Canada, Brazil, and Australia.
They also analyzed a total of 912,048 weekly approval ratings of governors across 50 states in the US. Results show that there is a significant and strong association between total and new daily confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country and the support for world leaders. The analyses show that world leaders received an increase in approval in the early months of the pandemic. On average, there was a 14-point boost in their approval rating.
The authors said that citizens tend to support their political leaders or government in times of national crisis, like a terrorist attack or war. However, the recent study is the first to determine the rally effect even during a global health crisis, one that is destructive and deadly worldwide.
Yam worked with Joshua Conrad Jackson, a doctoral student in psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. They drew from psychological and political science theories for their research. The team also found that US President Donald Trump had a slight gain (4-point) in his approval rating out of a possible 100 compared to the substantial 24- to 61-point increase in the approval for leaders in Germany, Canada, UK, and Australia. The US governments, on the other hand, had 15- to 2-point approval gains, as published by Phys.org.
Yam went on to say that Covid-19 may catalyze to help incumbent leaders win elections. In Korea, for instance, the ruling party won the most seats in the House during the April 2020 election than any party since 1960. Jackson added that since they gathered their day in the early months of the pandemic, they are not equipped to answer questions regarding the effect. What they are sure of is that it will not last forever but there are several factors to be considered in understanding the timeline. These factors include how effectively the world leader is perceived by the public in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a study titled “Explaining Presidential Approval: The Significance of Issue Salience,” it was explained that evaluations of the President’s performance on certain issues have more impact on their presidential approval when the issues become salient to its citizens. Approval ratings also matter for reelection. Just like a job approval rating, it can make or break an electoral candidate’s chances of winning the reelection.
Conspiracies and confusion
In a survey conducted by UK-based academic research PandemicPolitics on the British adult population (n=2,100), 38.1% of the respondents believe that the coronavirus came from animals. Another 15.3% thought it was most likely developed intentionally in a lab. The same percentage of people said that the virus was caused by human living habits, 10.6% said it just came about naturally, and 7.1% thought it was made accidentally in a lab.
Support for measures to measure the Covid-19 pandemic
PandemicPolitics also said that as the UK entered its fourth week of lockdown, 83% of the participants perceived government measures implemented to combat the pandemic were necessary. Some 48% strongly support for a measure that allows people to leave their homes only for essential reasons, 35% strongly support to have more financial support to the self-employed and small businesses, 37% strongly support to suspend mortgage and debt payments for the duration of the crisis, and 46% strongly support to make vaccinations compulsory once the vaccine becomes available.
The findings emphasize that the British public looked at their government for pandemic solutions while they also recognize their responsibility. Yet, the survey shows that only half of the respondents supported having a lockdown for at least six months.
Approval ratings for many world leaders
In a statistic provided by The Economist, it also shows that politicians who took the Covid-19 seriously have seen a boost in their approval ratings. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval rating absolute value stood at 64%, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (61%), Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel (58%), UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (61%), India's PM Narendra Modi (82%), and France's President Emmanuel Macron (34%), among others.
As for Yam and the team’s study, they predict that Covid-19 cases should be associated with higher levels of support for national leaders, regardless of their performance in handling the pandemic. In the Hong Kong dataset, the team was able to test their hypothesis conservatively because the political ratings of their chief executive had been relatively low due to the political unrest before the pandemic. Their city also has a small number of Covid-19 cases during the analysis.
The pandemic has put the world’s political leaders to the test. Whether millions live or get sick will depend on the decisions the leaders take. The stakes could not be higher. Some nations have been successful in controlling the spread of the virus thus far. Although every country and leader are different, their efforts could provide possible guidelines for other countries to follow.