As populism has experienced a resurgence in recent years, many have focused on the hazards the ideology poses to democratic systems. But today’s complex and highly technical global threats—pandemics, climate change, cyberattacks, financial crises—that demand technocratic solutions have driven home a grim reality: Populism can place us all at risk.
In 2018, a burst of anger over government corruption propelled a populist politician named Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency. Brazil, which is currently suffering from one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, is a prime example of how populist governance in one country can threaten the whole world. If the way out of the pandemic is through science, in the form of mass vaccination and other containment measures, the corollary is also true: The way we remain mired in it is, in large part, through the kind of anti-science worldview that populists frequently champion.
The shift to the pandemic’s vaccination phase has prompted many people to dwell at the micro level: When will I be fully vaccinated? When will my family and friends get their shots? When can we all revert to something resembling normal life? But that has lent a false sense of security to the vaccinated and obscured the perils lurking at the macro level, as devastating new waves of COVID-19 crash over countries such as India and Brazil and spread more transmissible variants of the virus beyond their shores.
“The United States may be advancing remarkably [with] the pace of vaccination, but so long as you have uncontrolled pandemics throughout the world, every contagion increases the likelihood of an ‘escape variant’ that eventually, with the level of interconnectedness we have, will find its way even [to] populations that have been vaccinated,” Julio Frenk, a former Mexican health minister and World Health Organization official, told me. “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” [Continue reading…]