CORONA POLITICS: New evidence of the political costs of mismanaging pandemics

12 Apr 2021

Governments that successfully contain the pandemic and adopt strict countermeasures have been the big political winners of the coronavirus crisis, according to new research by Helios Herrera, Maximilian Konradt, Guillermo Ordoñez and Christoph Trebesch. Their study shows that for such governments, their approval rates increased by more than 7 percentage points initially, from February to July 2020, and by 4 percentage points in total up to February 2021.

In contrast, governments that followed loose pandemic policies to limit economic damage perform significantly worse in terms of public support, especially when Covid-19 cases continue to rise. But since 2021, governments that vaccinate faster lose less popularity when fatalities are accelerating.

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The data show that infection numbers were the main drivers for government approval in the early stage of the pandemic, while fatalities and vaccinations have been predominant in the most recent stage.

These results emerge from the first wide-ranging study of the political impact of the crisis, which constructs a novel dataset of government approval ratings and election intentions in 35 countries on a weekly basis. These countries include 20 developed and 15 emerging economies, accounting for 65% of global economic output.

The study shows for the first time that Covid-19 case numbers have a strong impact on government approval ratings around the world. At the beginning of the pandemic in February and March 2020, most governments enjoyed a significant boost in public approval, a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. But in countries where the number of cases continued to rise, approval ratings fell rapidly again, especially if governments did not take strict countermeasures to contain the pandemic.

One year removed, approval gains of governments in countries with low case numbers and fatalities are on average 5 percentage points higher than in countries that failed to contain the spread of Covid- 19. This is a sizeable effect, given that elections are often decided by a few percentage points.

Importantly, the database allows for a broad assessment of the determinants of government popularity over the entire course of the pandemic: The data suggest that while the growth rate of Covid infections and stringent policies mattered early on, public attention has shifted more towards Covid fatalities in the latter half of 2020. When zooming in on the year 2021, the researchers find that countries with the fastest vaccination programmes are the main approval winners.

Finally, the results underline that incumbents are evaluated by their efforts to contain the virus: initially, governments are punished less for high infections numbers if they impose stringent policy measures. Since 2021, governments that vaccinate faster lose less popularity when Covid fatalities are accelerating.

Christopher Trebesch

Professor | Kiel Institute for the World Economy | christoph.trebesch@ifw-kiel.de