Across the world central governments face local covid-19 revolts
SPEAKING IN PARLIAMENT on October 12th, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, grappled with a problem facing countries across the world: how to contain a resurgence of the coronavirus, without imposing a national lockdown. Like other governments, his has responded so far with a patchwork of varying local rules for England (which differ somewhat from those set by the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). So he said the government was “simplifying, standardising” them, into a three-tier hierarchy of restrictions. In areas with a “very high alert level”, pubs will be shut and indoor social mixing will be banned. The government will “work with local government leaders on the additional measures which should be taken”. That may not be easy. In England, as elsewhere, management of the pandemic has frayed relations between central and lower levels of government almost to breaking-point.
From northern England to the Mediterranean, local politicians are in revolt. In Manchester, the mayor has complained that the lack of discussion and consultation makes the government “impossible to deal with”; in Marseilles, the deputy mayor has grumbled that decisions from Paris “come like a stone dropped from a bridge”; a battle between the Spanish government and the local authorities in Madrid ended up in court. All three cities were aghast at new local lockdowns imposed by the central government.
Some tension is inevitable. Worldwide, the number of new coronavirus cases is spreading faster than ever, with more than 200,000 infections reported each day on average. Governments have neither the economic resources nor the political backing to sustain another national lockdown. Yet local ones bring local objections.
Arguments over jurisdiction, process and central-government high-handedness cannot disguise a real conflict of interest between local and central politicians. It seems both unjust and unnecessary for a government to impose nationwide rules when infection rates can vary widely from place to place. In England, in the seven days ending on October 9th, the city of Nottingham in the Midlands had 834 covid-19 cases per 100,000 people. In the West Country, Cornwall and the Scilly Isles had 29. But when central governments enact lockdowns in the most severely affected areas, local politicians face intense pressure from their constituents and businesses to resist harsh measures that are not imposed elsewhere. In the parliamentary exchanges following Mr Johnson’s announcement on October 12th, Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative former health minister, pointed to China, Italy and South Korea as evidence that strict early local lockdowns are the best way of avoiding national ones.
Some of the direct problems in the fight against the pandemic have come in countries with highly centralised decision-making. In India, for example, a national lockdown imposed in March later led tens of millions of unemployed casual workers to head for their home villages, spreading the virus to uninfected parts of the country. In England, to a lesser extent, poor management of the virus has been blamed on overcentralisation. Many critics point to places such as Germany, one of the European countries admired for its handling of the pandemic, which has a public-health system embedded in local government. But even there in the early days of the pandemic tensions arose as the federal government, which has very limited competences in this area, struggled to impose any sort of consistency across the 16 states, the leaders of which would sometimes squabble in public over their approaches to covid restrictions. In Italy, parts of which suffered terribly in March and April, responsibility for health rests almost entirely with regional governments (Rome sets overall guidelines, though that includes the power to declare lockdowns in “red zones”).
Devolving decision-making does not eliminate disgruntlement. There can also be rows between two sub-national levels of government. In Italy Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples, accused Vincenzo De Luca, the governor of its region, Campania, of impoverishing small-business owners by ordering the closure of bars and restaurants. Or in New York, the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, has bickered with the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, over how to handle the virus. And citizens themselves can object to policies, whichever level of administration imposed them. In New York itself, for example, angry ultra-Orthodox Jews have staged protests against restrictions on houses of worship.
Spain has perhaps suffered the worst of both worlds. Having centralised too much in the spring, it then went to the other extreme. Health services are devolved to the 17 regional governments. When the pandemic gathered force in March the national government imposed a national lockdown and centralised authority over health services and policing. Spain is still suffering proportionately the worst covid-19 numbers of any large country in Europe, with 258 cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days and more than twice that in Madrid. The left-wing national government of Pedro Sánchez is at loggerheads with the conservative regional administration of Isabel Díaz Ayuso in Madrid. On October 9th Mr Sánchez decreed a 15-day state of emergency in the capital, to re-impose restrictions on entering or leaving the city that a court had knocked down at Ms Díaz Ayuso’s request. Spaniards have discovered that their political leaders are much more interested in squabbling with each other than in protecting their health.
And politicians everywhere are interested in their own careers. In most countries, they say they do not want the response to the pandemic to be politicised. But it always is, which is another dynamic that complicates local-centre relations. For local politicians with national ambitions, covid-19, the burning issue of the day, is a stick with which to beat incumbents. In Indonesia, for example, rivalry between the president, Joko Widodo, and Anies Baswedan, the governor of Jakarta, the capital, who is assumed to have presidential aspirations, has manifested itself in a tussle over lockdown policy. The coronavirus has interrupted many aspects of everyday life. But not politics.
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