Finance: Research, Policy and Anecdotes

Covid – nobody gets it completely right

If one looks across countries, the heroes of yesterday are often the villains of today.  Take Germany, praised for its low incidence and mortality during the first Covid wave in spring 2020, now (together with fellow-German speaking Austria and Switzerland) falling behind due to vaccination hesitancy.  Take the UK – a disaster during the first wave, due to arrogance (“we are not Italy”), but then an early success story in vaccination.


Having lived in two countries during the pandemic has also helped me reassess popular prejudices about countries. Common sense and rule-abiding British – well, not so much; rule-ignoring Italians, well, not at all.  On the London tube, up to 50% of passengers somehow seem to be exempt from mask-wearing (obviously, they are not), on the buses and trains in Italy I still have to find a single person not wearing a mask. There are other national characteristics I learned about during the pandemic: British people do not, in general, like to confront rule breakers, whereas Italian (and to a certain extent Germans) do, at least when they realise that this rule breaking also affects them negatively (by spreading the virus).


There has been much discussion on what rules and policies worked and did not work during the pandemic. Recent research has shown that countries with populist governments have performed worse during the pandemic; the authors identify less severe restrictions and communication downplaying the threat from the pandemic as mechanisms.  Maybe in addition to this is the rule breaking by populists themselves, such as by Boris Johnson in the UK, with his excessive partying (oops, sorry work meetings with wine and cheese) and refusal to wear a mask, even in a hospital; this does not exactly set the best example.


There was quite some divergence in lockdowns and travel restrictions across the globe, with some countries imposing a complete travel stop and imposing lockdowns with only a few cases and other countries relying on common sense. With the Omicron wave having been relatively mild and widespread lockdown-fatigue, there has been a convergence towards limited or no restrictions, with the notable exception of China. The question is whether dropping even simple and non-intrusive restrictions (such as wearing masks on public transport or crowded indoor spaces and vaccination passes) is really advisable or whether they rather constitute political manoeuvring of the worst kind (as one suspects in the UK).  With the same token, however, one wonders whether continuous or repeated lockdowns and closed borders can be maintained forever, as in the case of China.


Almost all countries have imposed restrictions and defined Covid policies on the national or state level.  An interesting outlier is the US, where in the absence of clear political leadership, private actors have stepped in, such as universities imposing testing and vaccination requirements. One can see that as a strength of private institutions or as weakness of a common polity.


Over the course of the pandemic, there were often cross-references to the previous global pandemic of this extent, the Spanish flu in 1918-20.  While history does not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. One can only hope that we will learn some lessons out of this pandemic and that they will not be forgotten by the time the next global pandemic comes around, be it 20, 50 or 100 years.