Weak and declining government effectiveness contributed to UK, Spain, Belgium and Italy being ravaged by first wave of COVID-19

The UK – along with Spain and Belgium – should have had extra time to prepare for the pandemic by heeding and reacting to what was happening in Italy
- Professor Andrés Rodriguez Pose
Houses of Parliament Image by Ana Gic from Pixabay

Weak and deteriorating government effectiveness in the UK, Spain, Belgium, and Italy, compounded by failures to strike society-wide consensus, played a key role in these European countries being hit hardest by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, reveals a new study by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). 

The research highlights that these countries — which had the highest share of excess deaths in Europe between January 1 – June 30, 2020 — have also seen the biggest relative decline in government effectiveness, as measured by the World Bank, over the last 20 years. 

Factors (1) such as government effectiveness, social connectivity, size and density of population, readiness of health systems, age structure, climate and air pollution were statistically analysed by the researchers to determine why some countries were hit harder than others by COVID-19. 

The discussion paper, Institutions and the uneven geography of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic says, “prolonged declines in government and civil service efficiency and creeping political pressures over decision-making may have compromised the capacity and credibility of governments to commit to what are difficult to implement policies, highly restrictive of personal freedoms.” 

These governments have also struggled to gain the political consensus necessary to take tough decisions. These include the introduction and policing of often lengthy lockdowns and quarantines, the closure of public spaces, workplaces and educational institutions, restrictions to mobility, or the implementation of mandatory health rules. 

Weak government is also a factor in the frequent and often sudden changes of direction and criteria in the policies that were adopted, the chronic lack of personal protective equipment for health and social workers, and inability to coordinate effectively the public procurement of medical and protective equipment. 

Andrés Rodriguez-Pose, Princesa de Asturias Professor at LSE and one of the authors of the report, said: “The UK – along with Spain and Belgium – should have had extra time to prepare for the pandemic by heeding and reacting to what was happening in Italy. But years of declining government effectiveness meant that they were overconfident, when the reality was that they had limited capacity to respond.   

“More efficient government can help save lives and this is something that needs to be addressed if these countries are going to deal better with deep shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that they may face in the future. This is something that must be done in the good times, not the bad.” 

Countries that managed the first wave of the health emergency far better, such as the Scandinavian countries, Germany, or the Netherlands, also performed better in terms of their government effectiveness over time. 

The researchers also found that pervasive social cleavages, where people do not connect with others from different cultural, social, economic and other types of backgrounds, was a major driver of the incidence of the pandemic. 

In addition, a tendency to meet frequently with friends and family drove up mortality in Mediterranean countries. 

Professor Rodriguez-Pose said: “Ineffectual governments failed to instill the trust necessary to bring their publics onboard with policies to tackle the pandemic. This was compounded by a lack of social cohesion and an ‘everyone for themselves’ attitude which undermined efforts to deliver an effective and coordinated response.” 

In line with the findings of other research, the researchers found the most affected areas of Europe are relatively large and well-connected regions, in colder and dryer climates, with high air pollution levels and relatively poorly resourced health systems. Accessibility by road was a more important driver of the pandemic than accessibility by air. Size and population density, by contrast, played a far lower role in the spread of the disease. 

Behind the article

(1) The researchers looked at what determined the different rates of excess deaths in different European regions between January 1 – June 30. They examined factors including the size and density of populations, regional wealth, local accessibility and connectivity to age structure, education, readiness of health systems, air pollution, climate and the role of formal and informal institutions.