From Sweden’s laissez-fair response to China’s ongoing restrictions, the management of the Covid-19 pandemic has varied across the world. One Belgian researcher argues that neoliberal policies are at the heart of mistakes that were made in western countries.
VUB professor of socio-economic ethics Koen Byttebier analysed the influence of political and ideological factors when shaping the Covid-19 response in various nations, including the EU Member States, the US and the UK.
Byttebier argues that many Western countries failed, both in prevention and in response to the pandemic, and that this is largely down to neoliberal ideologies that result in everything being "subordinated to economic interests."
"According to this ideology, there must be economic growth and prosperity for a society to function well," Byttebier told The Brussels Times. He explained that many of the decisions that resulted from this mindset hindered the ability of countries to tackle the pandemic.
Lack of staffing and places in hospitals
Austerity is often at the centre of this, specifically cutting funding from the so-called "ingedients" that form a welfare state, such as public services. "That had a very strong impact on prevention and healthcare," Byttebier said, something which became very obvious during the pandemic.
In many countries, including Belgium, this led to a gradual reduction in the number of qualified medical staff, especially in hospitals and nursing homes.
"When a pandemic such as Covid-19 breaks out, there is no longer any systemic resistance, because the number of places for patients in hospitals and their ICU wards has diminished as a result of these cuts. This meant that, in various countries, medical centres were overcrowded very quickly during the first wave."
Byttebier added that at the same time, privatisation – a cornerstone of neoliberalism – is harmful to nursing and care homes, promoting understaffing in the search to cut costs and increase owner profits.
Giving the virus free rein
In his research, Byttebier makes comparisons between neoliberal and more state interventionist Asian countries. In particular, he notes that the response to the first wave of Covid-19 was more likely to be delayed in neoliberal countries.
"Once one case of such a virus is detected, contact tracing, testing and containing it is very important. In the US and Europe, that hardly happened at the start. They were too late, despite the very serious warnings from for example China and the WHO."
He explained that, as a result, it took many of these countries six weeks to develop a fast-performing test. "That may not seem like a long time, but for a virus like Covid-19, that is an eternity for the virus to spread in the population, which is what happened in many parts of the EU and the US."
By the time these countries did galvanise themselves, infections were already widespread and required strict measures such as lockdowns to combat. These caused more damage to economies and the effects are still being felt.
Byttebier argues that prioritising economic prosperity over public health was the most noticeable here.
"After just a few weeks, the economic sectors, but many ministers too, started lobbying to end these measures. The moment infections started to drop again because of these measures, everyone was rubbing their hands together and there was a call for the economy to be reopened."
In 2020, this resulted in a second wave of the pandemic that was in many western countries "at least as severe if not more so," and later, in an accordion policy of curves going down again, the economy being reopened and then new measures being introduced shortly after as a result of this.
"Throughout this story, you always saw very clearly the decisive role played by the calls for reopening of the economy." Byttebier stressed that several Asian countries that responded more effectively from the beginning, didn't resort to such strict lockdowns again.
Communication is key
Byttebier lists numerous flaws in the response strategies of nations. However, one of the greatest (particularly in Belgium) was poor communication.
"Belgium's fragmentation of powers and different levels of authority clearly did not work." Belgium communicated in a way that not only confused citizens, but also official government bodies.
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Byttebier analysed the various government decrees that were published throughout the pandemic. "At a certain point, a new decree was issued every other week. Sometimes, nuances were made with respect to the previous update, but this failed to clarify what was and was not actually permitted."
He stressed the need to learn from this experience in order to better prepare for possible future pandemics. Especially with regards to communicating with the population more directly and more efficiently.
Yet Byttebier is doubtful that countries in Europe, including Belgium, will actually learn these lessons: "I regret to see that our virologists, who helped guide our countries through the crisis, have been sent away. We now act as if there is no longer a problem while the pandemic actually continues worldwide and there are still many infections, hospitalisations and deaths, even in our own country."