November 13, 2020

The global effects of COVID-19 underscore the importance of international cooperation to prevent disease transmission, as well as to protect and care for vulnerable communities. But the rise of populist nationalism – a political philosophy that prioritizes domestic interests and rejects global unity – has hindered the public health responses of many countries, including the United States.

In a new editorial published in the American Journal of Public Health, two researchers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health caution that these populist policies could have lasting consequences on health and human rights.

Caitlin Williams

Caitlin Williams

Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier

Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier

The editorial was co-authored by Caitlin R. Williams, MSPH, doctoral candidate in maternal and child health, and Benjamin Mason Meier, JD, LLM, PhD, associate professor of public policy and adjunct associate professor of health policy and management, in collaboration with Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum, JD, MPH, clinical associate professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Governance from populist governments can lead to detrimental health outcomes for their citizens. Public policies to advance health rely on international standards that protect human rights and encourage solidarity between nations. International organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) provide leadership and develop a framework for countries to respond to crises like COVID-19 in a manner that prioritizes accurate science and a public right to information.

In contrast, populist nationalist leaders often cast those who advocate for human rights – including health researchers and practitioners – as “elite” and foment negative sentiment that pits them against “the people,” even when these advocates are championing the rights and wellbeing of the people against authoritarian governments. Such leaders can weaponize this rhetoric to gain politically advantageous positions in ways that undermine the authority of public health science, erode the rights of marginalized groups and subvert global responses to common threats.

“Across the board, we’re seeing populist nationalist leaders attack scientists and public health officials to distract from the fact that their mismanagement of the pandemic has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives,” says Williams. “President Trump’s closing campaign argument to the American people was that if elected, Joe Biden would ‘listen to the scientists.’ It doesn’t get any more explicit than that.”

The editorial outlines specific examples of populist and nationalist responses that are deliberately repressive and subvert global efforts to contain the pandemic. Chinese officials forced a whistleblower to sign a letter admitting to falsifying statements about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Populist leaders in Hungary and India restricted rights through the abuse of emergency powers to repress vulnerable populations. And the United States sought to withdraw completely from the WHO in order to deflect from the failures of its domestic response.

Where “human rights are inextricably linked with public health goals,” Meier finds that “government efforts to divide people through discriminatory attacks will inevitably fail to prevent the spread of disease, undermining the trust necessary for an effective pandemic response.”

The authors emphasize that populist nationalism in governance has provoked failures in COVID-19 response that will be felt for years to come. Societies that have rejected human rights are called to reconsider strategies that strive for equity and emphasize better health through global solidarity. With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, global collaboration will be crucial to ensure equitable access and prevent further disease transmission that could lead to far greater harm.

“Societies can choose fear, letting distrust of the ‘Other’ turn them inward, splinter fractured communities and breed sectarian violence,” the authors write. “Or they can choose hope, reaching out across difference to face health threats together.”

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