Ilan Noy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Nguyen Doan, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonWhat have we lost because of the pandemic? According to our calculations, a lot — and many of the worst hit countries and regions are far from world media attention.
Typically, damage from any disaster is measured in separate categories: the number of fatalities and injuries it caused, and the financial damage it led to (directly or indirectly).
Only by aggregating these various measures into a comprehensive total can we begin to formulate a fuller picture of the burden of disasters, including pandemics.
They do this based on surveys asking people how much they are willing to pay to reduce some risk (for example, improve a road they often use), or by calculating the additional compensation people demand when they take on high-risk occupations (for example, as a diver on an oil rig).
By observing the amount of money people associate with small changes in mortality risk, one can then calculate the overall price of a “statistical life” as valued by the average person.
By adding the dollar value of asset damage to the “priced” value of life lost (or injured), the overall cost of an adverse event (such as an earthquake or an epidemic) can be calculated.
Calculating ‘lost life years’
But “value of life” prices can vary a lot between and even within countries. There is also an understandable public distaste for putting a price tag on human life. Governments typically don’t openly discuss these calculations, making it difficult to assess their legitimacy.
An alternative is a “life years lost index”. It is based on the World Health Organization (WHO) measure of “disability-adjusted life years” (DALY), calculated for a long list of diseases and published in a yearly account of the associated human costs.
In conventional measurements of the impact of disaster risk, the unit used is dollars. For this alternative index, the unit of measurement is “lost life years” — the loss of the equivalent of one year of full health.
This is a sum of three key measures of the pandemic’s impact: lost life years because of death and sickness from the disease, and the equivalent lost years due to decline in economic activity. The map below presents these figures per person, in order to enable the relevant comparison across countries.
For example, in the map above we see Australia has a life-years-lost figure of 0.02. This means, on average, every person in Australia lost just over seven life days from the pandemic. In New Zealand, where fewer people died and there have been only a few thousand cases, the figure is 0.01, meaning each person lost fewer than four life days.
In India, by contrast, the average person lost nearly 15 days and in Peru the equivalent figure is 25 days. That loss is based on a combination of the precipitous recession and the death and sickness caused by the virus directly.
So, how do we put this in context? Is losing 25 days a catastrophic loss that justifies the kinds of public actions we have observed around the world? We can answer that question by comparing the impact of COVID-19 to other disasters.
The price of a pandemic
When we compare the total aggregate costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with the average annual costs associated with all other disasters in the previous 20 years, we find the pandemic has indeed been extremely costly (in terms of lost life years).
This is despite those past two decades having seen many catastrophic events: horrific tsunamis in Indonesia (2004) and Japan (2011), very damaging hurricanes in the US (2005 and 2017), a high-mortality cyclone in Myanmar (2008), deadly earthquakes in India (2001), Pakistan (2005), China (2008), Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015), and others.
The graph below shows the life years lost in 2020 by continent, per person, from COVID-19 compared to the average annual cost of all other disasters 2000-2019. As we can see, the costs of the pandemic are much higher — more than three times higher in Asia and more than 30 times higher in Europe.
The most vulnerable countries have been small, open economies such as Fiji, Maldives and Belize, which rely heavily on the export of services, especially tourism.
These are not necessarily countries that have experienced a high number of deaths from the pandemic, but their overall loss is staggering.
More generally, the per-capita loss associated with COVID-19 is particularly high in most of Latin America, southern Africa, southern Europe, India and some of the Pacific Islands. This is in stark contrast to where the global media’s attention has been directed (the US, UK and EU).
Costs will continue to rise
These measures are for 2020 only. Obviously, the pandemic is continuing to rage, and will most likely continue to have an impact on the global economy well into 2022. Many of the adverse economic impacts will still be felt years from now.
Worryingly, some of the countries that have already suffered the greatest economic impact have also been slow to secure enough vaccine doses for their populations. They may well see their economic slumps carry on into next year, especially with larger, richer countries having the resources to buy vaccines first.
Much public and media attention has focused on the death toll and immediate economic impact from COVID-19. But the human and social costs associated with that economic loss are potentially much greater, particularly in poorer countries.
The heavy burden many small countries have borne has, to some extent, been overlooked. Countries such as Lebanon and the Maldives are experiencing dramatic and painful crises, largely under the radar of world attention.
However, our conclusion that the human cost of the economic loss is possibly much higher than the cost associated with health loss does not imply public policies such as lockdowns, border restrictions and quarantines have been unwarranted.
If anything, countries that experienced a deeper health crisis also experienced a deeper economic crisis. There has been no effective trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihoods.
This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Nguyen Doan, Doctoral student in economics, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
One year ago today, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the first caused by a coronavirus.
As we enter year two of the pandemic, let’s remind ourselves of some sobering statistics. So far, there have been more than 117.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world; more than 2.6 million people have died. A total of 221 countries and territories have been affected. Some 12 of the 14 countries and territories reporting no cases are small Pacific or Atlantic islands.
Whether the race to end the pandemic will be a sprint or a marathon remains to be seen, as does the extent of the gap between rich and poor contestants. However, as vaccines roll out across the world, it seems we are collectively just out of the starting blocks.
Vaccines are like walking on the Moon
Developing safe and effective vaccines in such a short time frame was a mission as ambitious, and with as many potential pitfalls, as walking on the Moon.
Miraculously, 12 months since a pandemic was declared, eight vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have been approved by at least one country. A ninth, Novavax, is very promising. So far, more than 312 million people have been vaccinated with at least one dose.
While most high-income countries will have vaccinated their populations by early 2022, 85 poor countries will have to wait until 2023.
This implies the world won’t be back to normal travel, trade and supply chains until 2024 unless rich countries take actions — such as waiving vaccine patents, diversifying production of vaccines and supporting vaccine delivery — to help poor countries catch up.
The vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective in preventing symptomatic and severe COVID-19. However, we need to continue to study the vaccines after being rolled out (conducting so-called post-implementation studies) in 2021 and beyond. This is to determine how long protection lasts, whether we need booster doses, how well vaccines work in children and the impact of vaccines on viral transmission.
What are the potential barriers to overcome?
One of the most salutary lessons we have learnt in the pandemic’s first year is how dangerous it is to let COVID-19 transmission go unchecked. The result is the emergence of more transmissible variants that escape our immune responses, high rates of excess mortality and a stalled economy.
Until we achieve high levels of population immunity via vaccination, in 2021 we must maintain individual and societal measures, such as masks, physical distancing, and hand hygiene; improve indoor ventilation; and strengthen outbreak responses — testing, contact tracing and isolation.
The outcomes of even momentary complacency are evident as global numbers of new cases once again increase after a steady two month decline. This recent uptick reflects surges in many European countries, such as Italy, and Latin American countries like Brazil and Cuba. New infections in Papua New Guinea have also risen alarmingly in the past few weeks.
Some fundamental questions also remain unanswered. We don’t know how long either natural or vaccine-induced immunity will last. However, encouraging news from the US reveals 92-98% of COVID-19 survivors had adequate immune protection six to eight months after infection. In 2021, we will continue to learn more about how long natural and vaccine-induced immunity lasts.
New variants may be the greatest threat
The longer the coronavirus circulates widely, the higher the risk of more variants of concern emerging. We are aware of B.1.1.7 (the variant first detected in the UK), B.1.351 (South Africa), and P.1 (Brazil).
Variants may transmit more readily than the original Wuhan strain of the virus and may lead to more cases. Some variants may also be resistant to vaccines, as has already been demonstrated with the B.1.351 strain. We will continue to learn more about the impact of variants on disease and vaccines in 2021 and beyond.
A year from now
Given so many unknowns, how the world will be in March 2022 would be an educated guess. However, what is increasingly clear is there will be no “mission accomplished” moment. We are at a crossroads with two end games.
In the most likely scenario, rich countries will return to their new normal. Businesses and schools will reopen and internal travel will resume. Travel corridors will be established between countries with low transmission and high vaccine coverage. This might be between Singapore and Taiwan, between Australia and Vietnam, and maybe between all four, and more countries.
In low- and middle-income countries, there may be a reduction in severe cases, freeing them to rehabilitate health services that have suffered in the past 12 months. These include maternal, newborn, and child health services, including reproductive health; tuberculosis, HIV and malaria programs; and nutrition. However, reviving these services will need rich countries to commit generous and sustained aid.
The second scenario, which sadly is unlikely to occur, is unprecedented global cooperation with a focus on science and solidarity to halt transmission everywhere.
This is a fragile moment in modern world history. But, in record time, we have developed effective tools to eventually control this pandemic. The path to a post-COVID-19 future can perhaps now be characterised as a hurdle race but one that presents severe handicaps to the world’s poorest nations. As an international community, we have the capacity to make it a level playing field.
For most of us, 2020 was an exhausting year. The COVID-19 pandemic heralded draining physical health concerns, social isolation, job dislocation, uncertainty about the future and related mental health issues.
Although some of us have enjoyed changes such as less commuting, for many the pandemic added extra punch to the main source of stress – engaging in or searching for work.
Here’s what theory and research tells us about how to feel more rested and alive in 2021.
Recovery activity v experience
Recovery is the process of reversing the adverse impacts of stress. Leading recovery researchers Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz have highlighted the important distinction between recovery activities (what you do during leisure time) and
recovery experiences (what you need to experience during and after those activities to truly recover).
Recovery activities can be passive (such as watching TV, lying on a beach, reading, internet browsing or listening to music) or active (walking, running, playing sport, dancing, swimming, hobbies, spiritual practice, developing a skill, creating something, learning a language and so on).
How well these activities reduce your stress depends on the extent to which they provide you with five types of recovery experiences:
psychological detachment: fully disconnecting during non-work time from work-related tasks or even thinking about work issues
relaxation: being free of tension and anxiety
mastery: challenging situations that provide a sense of progress and achievement (such as being in learning mode to develop a new skill)
control: deciding yourself about what to do and when and how to do it
enjoyment: the state or process of deriving pleasure from seeing, hearing or doing something.
Of these, psychological detachment is the most potent, according to a 2017 meta-analysis of 54 psychological studies involving more than 26,000 participants.
Benefits of mentally disengaging from work include reduced fatigue and enhanced well-being. On the other hand, inadequate psychological detachment leads to negative thoughts about work, exhaustion, physical discomfort, and negative emotions both at bedtime and during the next morning.
Here are five tips, drawn from the research, to feel more rested and alive.
1. Follow the evidence
There are mixed findings regarding the recovery value of passive, low-effort activities such as watching TV or reading a novel.
More promising are social activities, avoiding work-related smartphone use after work, as well as engaging in “receptive” leisure activities (such as attending a concert, game or cultural event) and “creative” leisure activities (designing and making something or expressing yourself in a creative way).
Spending time in “green” environments (parks, bushland, hills) is restorative, particularly when these are natural rather than urban settings. “Blue” environments (the coast, rivers, lakes) are also highly restorative.
Even short lunchtime walks and relaxation exercises lead to feeling more recovered during the afternoon.
Two of the surest ways to recover are to engage in physical exercise and get plenty of quality sleep.
2. Assess your ‘boundary management style’
Your boundary management style is the extent to which you integrate or separate your work and life beyond work. Work-life researcher Ellen Kossek has created a survey (it takes about five minutes) to help assess your style and provide suggestions for improvement.
The following table developed by Kossek shows physical, mental and social strategies to manage boundaries and separate your work and life beyond work.
3. Cultivate your identity beyond work
We may also have many other identities related to, for instance, (“I’m a parent”), religion (“I’m a Catholic”), interests (“I’m a guitarist”), activities (“I’m a jogger”) or learning aspirations (“I’m learning Portuguese”).
First, reorganise your physical space to reduce visual reminders of your work-related identities (e.g. your laptop, professional books, performance awards) and replace them with reminders of your other identities.
Second, do some “identity work” and “identity play”, reflecting on the identities you cherish and experimenting with potential new identities.
4. Make time for better recovery experiences
Document what you do when not working. Ask yourself how much these activities enable you to truly experience psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control and enjoyment.
Then experiment with alternative activities that might provide richer recovery experiences. This will typically require less time on things such as news media (especially pandemic updates and doomscrolling), TV, social media, online shopping or video games, gambling, pornography, alcohol or illicit drugs to recover.
You will make it easier to give up activities with minimal recovery value if you supplant them with more rejuvenating alternatives you enjoy.
5. Form new habits
Habits are behaviours we automatically repeat in certain situations. Often we fail to develop better habits by being too ambitious. The “tiny habits” approach suggests thinking smaller, with “ABC recipes” that identify:
anchor moments, when you will enact your intended behaviour
behaviours you will undertake during those moments
celebration to create a positive feeling that helps this behaviour become a habit.
Examples of applying this approach are:
After I eat lunch, I will walk for at least ten minutes (ideally somewhere green). I will celebrate by enjoying what I see along the way.
After I finish work, I will engage in 30 minutes of exercise before dinner. I will celebrate by raising my arms in a V shape and saying “Victory!”
After 8.30pm I will not look at email or think about work. I will celebrate by reminding myself I deserve to switch off.
Perhaps the most essential ingredient for building better recovery habits is to steer away from feeling burdened by ideas about what you “should” do to recover. Enjoy the process of experimenting with different recovery activities that, given all your work and life commitments, seem most promising, viable and fun.
The videos embedded below show the latest news at the top.
Hundreds of pro-Trump rioters today charged into the US Capitol, where Congress was set to certify Joe Biden’s presidency. Four people have reportedly died in relation to this protest, including a woman who was shot.
The riot marked a disturbing escalation in the willingness and ability for the far right to mobilise against liberal democratic institutions, inspired by baseless claims peddled by the president: that this has been a stolen, fraudulent election.
It culminates years of President Donald Trump’s incitement and endorsement of these groups. Recall his endorsement of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville (“there are very fine people on both sides”) and his refusal to condemn the Proud Boys (“stand back and stand by”). He even affirmed the Capitol building protesters, calling them “very special” and “great patriots”.
Certainly the way Trump is responding has only served to embolden the protesters and inflame the situation.
While there’s no doubt that some of the protesters were individual citizens, members of far-right extremist groups played an important, visible role in the riots. So who are the far-right rioters, and why are they so angry?
Violence is their bread and butter
The Proud Boys are one of the significant groups driving the protests, known for using violence to achieve their political ends. They describe themselves as a men’s fraternity of “Western chauvinists”, but are effectively a white nationalist gang predicated on violence.
As Proud Boys founder Gavin McGuinnes described in 2017, to reach the highest level of the organisation’s hierarchy a member must “kick the crap out of an antifa” (anti-fascist).
However, the most direct antecedent to what we’re seeing today is the storming of the Michigan State House last month by armed men involved in militia groups and other Trump-supporting protesters.
The events in Michigan followed a series of tweets by Trump, one of which urged his followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” in response to stay-at-home orders issued to combat rising numbers of COVID-19 infections.
What’s fuelling their anger?
The general appeal of groups like the Proud Boys is the retaliation to a perceived loss of white male supremacy and the erosion of privileges that were exclusively for the white man.
More specifically, in relation to what’s happening in Washington, their anger is fuelled by Trump’s claims of election fraud and a stolen election, including the baseless “Dominion” theory — a QAnon-related conspiracy about voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems involving Hugo Chavez and George Soros.
There is a wide spectrum of messaging from Trump’s supporters in today’s riots in Washington and outside other statehouses around America, from the comparatively banal claims of election fraud to dangerously unhinged calls for violence.
But behind their anger is almost a perverse democratic sentiment. Many no doubt genuinely believe their democratic rights have been subverted by liberal elites and “traitor Republicans” who don’t buy into Trump’s messages.
And so along with anger, there is also a sense of fear: fear that American democracy has been overturned at the hands of their “opponents”, even as they themselves actively undermine liberal democratic values and institutions.
Misinformation, conspiracies and false flags
Already, conspiracy theories and misinformation about today’s protests are being widely disseminated online. In particular, the riots are being spun as a “false flag”, with claims the rioters were actually antifascist provocateurs wanting to make Trump look bad.
Crucially, this isn’t just fringe internet conspiracy, but one being pushed by people with institutional clout. For example, Lin Wood, an attorney who until recently was embedded in Trump’s legal team, has spread this particular theory on Twitter, while alternative news outlets such as Newsmax repeated this line in their live coverage of the protest.
Misinformation plays a huge role in garnering extremist right wing views, and is being distributed widely across Facebook and other social media, as well as in mainstream press. And it’s not only in the US. Sky News in Australia, to give a local example, has been repeating without any clarification Trump’s lies of election fraud.
Unfortunately, tech companies have shown they’re unwilling to address this tidal wave of misinformation in a meaningful way.
Twitter will now slap a warning on a Trump post, and recently suspended his account for 12 hours — a temporary move followed by Facebook and Instagram. But countless white supremacists are still on there. For example, American white supremacist and founding figure of the “alt-right” Richard Spencer is still active on Twitter.
This a real danger, not only for the US, but for liberal democracies around the world, as misinformation continues to erode trust in institutions and stoke violent action.
So how do we begin addressing the far right?
To start, news and social media outlets must begin to take misinformation and hateful and extremist content seriously. This could be through more serious investment in content moderation for social media platforms, and refusing to uncritically publish patently false information, such as claims of voter fraud, for news media.
Similarly, a president who refuses to endorse organised white supremacists or conspiracy communities like QAnon would help reduce their legitimacy. As long as Trump continues speak of a “stolen election” and “very fine people”, the far right will feel validated in their violent actions and words.
While it is important security agencies take the very real threat of far-right violence seriously, we should look to other approaches to address and disrupt the far right beyond policing.
In Germany, for example, there has been some success with intervention at the interpersonal level. Educating role models for young people such as teachers and sports coaches to act as circuit breakers in the radicalisation process will help stem the flow of new recruits.
Young people are often targeted by far-right groups for recruitment. So role models like teachers are given skills to identify early signs of radicalisation, such as certain symbols or even fashion brands. They can engage with an individual who may be on the precipice of extremism, and offer them another path.
Given the very real danger posed by the far right, there needs to be a more rigorous approach to combating the allure of far-right extremist misinformation.
Amid the chaos in the US Capitol, stoked largely by rhetoric from President Donald Trump, Twitter has locked his account, with 88.7 million followers, for 12 hours.
Facebook and Instagram quickly followed suit, locking Trump’s accounts — with 35.2 million followers and 24.5 million, respectively — for at least two weeks, the remainder of his presidency. This ban was extended from 24 hours.
The locks are the latest effort by social media platforms to clamp down on Trump’s misinformation and baseless claims of election fraud.
They came after Twitter labelled a video posted by Trump and said it posed a “risk of violence”. Twitter removed users’ ability to retweet, like or comment on the post — the first time this has been done.
In the video, Trump told the agitators at the Capitol to go home, but at the same time called them “very special” and said he loved them for disrupting the Congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
That tweet has since been taken down for “repeated and severe violations” of Twitter’s civic integrity policy. YouTube and Facebook have also removed copies of the video.
But as people across the world scramble to make sense of what’s going on, one thing stands out: the events that transpired today were not unexpected.
Given the lack of regulation and responsibility shown by platforms over the past few years, it’s fair to say the writing was on the wall.
The real, violent consequences of misinformation
While Trump is no stranger to contentious and even racist remarks on social media, Twitter’s action to lock the president’s account is a first.
The line was arguably crossed by Trump’s implicit incitement of violence and disorder within the halls of the US Capitol itself.
Nevertheless, it would have been a difficult decision for Twitter (and Facebook and Instagram), with several factors at play. Some of these are short-term, such as the immediate potential for further violence.
Then there’s the question of whether tighter regulation could further incite rioting Trump supporters by feeding into their theories claiming the existence of a large-scale “deep state” plot against the president. It’s possible.
But a longer-term consideration — and perhaps one at the forefront of the platforms’ priorities — is how these actions will affect their value as commercial assets.
I believe the platforms’ biggest concern is their own bottom line. They are commercial companies legally obliged to pursue profits for shareholders. Commercial imperatives and user engagement are at the forefront of their decisions.
What happens when you censor a Republican president? You can lose a huge chunk of your conservative user base, or upset your shareholders.
Despite what we think of them, or how we might use them, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube aren’t set up in the public interest.
For them, it’s risky to censor a head of state when they know that content is profitable. Doing it involves a complex risk calculus — with priorities being shareholders, the companies’ market value and their reputation.
Walking a tightrope
The platforms’ decisions to not only force the removal of several of Trump’s posts but also to lock his accounts carries enormous potential loss of revenue. It’s a major and irreversible step.
And they are now forced to keep a close eye on one another. If one appears too “strict” in its censorship, it may attract criticism and lose user engagement and ultimately profit. At the same time, if platforms are too loose with their content regulation, they must weather the storm of public critique.
You don’t want to be the last organisation to make the tough decision, but you don’t necessarily want to be the first, either — because then you’re the “trial balloon” who volunteered to potentially harm the bottom line.
For all major platforms, the past few years have presented high stakes. Yet there have been plenty of opportunities to stop the situation snowballing to where it is now.
The storming of the Capitol is a logical consequence of what has arguably been a long time coming.
The coronavirus pandemic illustrated this. While Trump was partially censored by Twitter and Facebook for misinformation, the platforms failed to take lasting action to deal with the issue at its core.
In the past, platforms have cited constitutional reasons to justify not censoring politicians. They have claimed a civic duty to give elected officials an unfiltered voice.
This line of argument should have ended with the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, when Trump responded to the killing of an anti-fascism protester by claiming there were “very fine people on both sides”.
An age of QAnon, Proud Boys and neo-Nazis
While there’s no silver bullet for online misinformation and extremist content, there’s also no doubt platforms could have done more in the past that may have prevented the scenes witnessed in Washington DC.
In a crisis, there’s a rush to make sense of everything. But we need only look at what led us to this point. Experts on disinformation have been crying out for platforms to do more to combat disinformation and its growing domestic roots.
Now, in 2021, extremists such as neo-Nazis and QAnon believers no longer have to lurk in the depths of online forums or commit lone acts of violence. Instead, they can violently storm the Capitol.
It would be a cardinal error to not appraise the severity and importance of the neglect that led us here. In some ways, perhaps that’s the biggest lesson we can learn.
This article has been updated to reflect the news that Facebook and Instagram extended their 24-hour ban on President Trump’s accounts.
History took place in the United States today.
Two Democrats were announced the winners of the run-off elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats, allowing the Democrats to take back control of the chamber from the Republicans.
Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were the first Democrats to win a Georgia Senate race in a quarter of a century. It also marked the first time since Herbert Hoover’s loss in 1932 that a president lost a re-election campaign and both chambers of Congress in a single term.
And thousands more people died from COVID-19, as the US continues to notch some of its highest single day death tolls since the pandemic began.
But today will be most remembered for something else entirely: the first attack on the US Capitol since the War of 1812 against the British.
Many warned that President Donald Trump’s violent and divisive rhetoric was inevitably going to lead to violence, though few would have predicted the Capitol itself would be overrun.
Today’s violence will remain a shocking moment for generations of Americans. Trump’s own former defence secretary, James Mattis, invoked the language of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to say that the political leaders who enabled the violence will “will live in infamy”.
No massive mandate for the Democrats
As Democrats prepare to take control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, their attention must be focused on how to address the divisiveness and extreme partisanship that has become rooted in the US, allowing such a dramatic assault on democracy to take place.
Hoover’s landslide election loss to Roosevelt in 1932 similarly gave the Democrats control of the White House and Congress. The Democrats used this opportunity to launch the New Deal — a series of government programs and initiatives intended to lift the US out of the Great Depression. It was unprecedented in its size and ambition.
Many of these programs — ranging from Social Security (a government safety net for elderly Americans) to government regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — were later expanded upon and continue through to today.
Unlike Roosevelt and his fellow Democrats in 1932, however, Joe Biden and his Democratic colleagues did not win landslide elections in 2020.
In fact, while Biden’s 306 Electoral College votes matched the total won by Trump in 2016, his pathway to victory was smaller.
Trump’s 2016 victory came from a combined 77,000 votes in the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden’s 2020 win came as a result of a combined 45,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Similarly, the Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia did not win in landslides, either. And with the Senate now evenly divided by the parties, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will spend a lot of time breaking 50-50 ties of her former colleagues in the chamber.
And beyond the White House and Senate, the Democrats actually lost, on balance, a total of 10 seats to the Republicans in the House of Representatives, thereby slimming their majority to only four seats.
How Biden will navigate the new Congress
But there are still clear advantages for the Democrats taking control of the Senate.
With Republicans no longer controlling when, or even if, votes occur in the Senate, everything from Supreme Court justices and Cabinet appointments to major pieces of legislation will no longer be contingent on Republican Mitch McConnell, the outgoing Senate majority leader.
In such a narrowly divided chamber, though, the onus will be on the Biden administration not to lose a single Democrat.
In many ways, the most powerful position in the Senate switches from McConnell to Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the two most conservative Democratic senators. They will likely prove to be the limits as to just how progressive a Biden agenda will be.
The Biden administration will need to get approval from a “large tent” of Democrats, including Manchin and Sinema, as well as progressives like Elizabeth Warren and the independent Bernie Sanders.
Ultimately, this slim hold on power will remain a hallmark of at least the first two years of the Biden administration.
That doesn’t, however, mean it will necessarily be divisive. In coming to the White House with more Washington experience than probably any other president in US history, Biden will need to prove that decades of experience as a “Washington insider” actually helps.
What will change for Biden — and what we can expect
Even before the Georgia races were called in the Democrats’ favour,
Merrick Garland was tipped to be Biden’s choice for attorney general. Following four years of Trump’s blatant attempts to politicise the Department of Justice, no attorney general selection has been as consequential in decades.
This is particularly pertinent because Biden has vowed to restore the Justice Department’s independence, which would prove crucial if it faces public pressure to investigate the actions of the prior administration.
Garland is not only President Barack Obama’s former Supreme Court nominee, whom McConnell famously refused to allow a vote on. He’s also a circuit judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one of the most consequential courts in the country.
It was the fact Biden can now replace Garland’s seat on this powerful bench with another Democrat — thanks to Democratic control of the Senate – that gave him the opportunity to make the selection.
Derisively labelled by some a political “weather vane”, Biden is not known to be a particularly ideological politician. Unlike most other presidents, he was not elected with a well-known ideological or political slogans focused on the future (for example, “Build the wall”, “Yes, we can” or “It’s the economy, stupid”).
Instead, Biden’s most well-known 2020 slogan, “Restoring the soul of America”, seemed to herald a return to prior years.
While many Americans may be pining for more normalcy, Biden has already seemed to acknowledge that doing so would not address the root causes of the sort of mayhem that occurred on Capitol Hill.
The most pressing priorities, as defined by the Biden administration, are COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
Taking control of the Senate, as well as the unprecedented unrest in Washington, will both widen the scope and redouble the urgency of the Biden team’s plans for addressing these issues.
But we shouldn’t expect a progressive revolution: the president-elect’s moderate tendencies are unwavering and unlikely to leave him simply because of Democrats eked out wins in Georgia. With that said, when the political spectrum has become stretched beyond conventional recognition, such moderation can often appear to be radical.
After weeks of President Donald Trump’s baseless claims about voter fraud and other improprieties costing him the presidential election, Washington erupted in chaos today as his supporters stormed the Capitol during a joint session of Congress to certify the results.
While shocking to watch, in hindsight, today’s riots feel almost inevitable.
Trump has spent weeks insisting the election was stolen, with very little push-back from the Republican Party. There have been some notable people who have challenged him, but even while this riot was going on, there were more than 100 Republican lawmakers trying to block certification of the election. This has been a highly opportunistic process on the part of Republican legislators.
For Trump, this is the whole game; at this point, it seems there is nothing else he cares about. He is desperately trying to hang on to power.
Amid all of this, it was inevitable at least some Americans would take the word of their current president very seriously. Having fired them up in this way, it becomes much harder to control mob behaviour. His belated tweet telling protesters to go home and go in peace (now removed by Twitter) was far too little, too late.
Looking at some of these images coming in from Washington, there is almost an element of “cosplay” (“costume play”). A lot of the rioters were dressed up in bizarre paraphernalia. On some level, I think they know they can’t actually seize power. There’s almost this carnival element to it of these people delighting in causing complete chaos.
Whether it’s Trump or his rioting supporters, if they can’t get their own way, if they can’t win, they’ll just create as much chaos as possible and revel in the absurdity of it.
Another thing that’s very obvious is these protesters didn’t fear the police. They were able to push their way past the police, they were able to force entry into the Capitol building and they’re then making jokes with reporters. They believed the police would not retaliate against them fatally — although four people died, including one woman who was shot by police.
The contrast with the Black Lives Matter protests is striking. A Black Lives Matter protest would never have been allowed to get that close to the Capitol. These are people acting with all kinds of impunity.
Undermining election results at all costs
In storming the Capitol and trying to stop a legitimate process of certifying the election, the rioters are following the lead of Trump and many congressional Republicans. It’s been trend for a while for Republicans that if they lose an election, they do as much as possible to nullify the results.
This is not necessarily trying to overturn the result. But if you look at recent elections in North Carolina and Wisconsin where Democratic governors won, that was followed by Republicans in the legislatures stripping as much power as possible from the governorship.
This idea that an election is only legitimate if we win has been put into practice by Republican legislators across the country for quite a while now.
With Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in November, there have been very few Republicans who have actually acknowledged this was the will of the people.
Part of that is because Trump’s victory four years ago was so unexpected, a lot of Republicans believe this was a new era in American politics. Part of that was the ability of Trump to win without actually winning the popular vote. Now that Biden has won, there’s a real unwillingness to acknowledge elections can still be lost legitimately by Republicans.
A failure of leadership from senior Republicans
From the beginning, Kevin McCarthy, the number one Republican in the House of Representatives, was absolutely behind these ridiculous stolen election claims. He’s never backed away from them.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, let these things go on for weeks before he made the most minimal statement that the Electoral College has spoken. It is no surprise that McConnell was then completely unable to control Republicans in the Senate who wanted to contest the certification of the election results.
Republicans have learned the lesson that the way to get the most attention, the way to further your career, is to take the most pro-Trump stance possible. So, it was no surprise so many lawmakers would back this effort to block certification of the election. They’re raising money off this, they’re creating YouTube videos to show their supporters.
It’s become Trump’s party. A lot of people see the path to political advancement backing Trump at every point.
There were a lot of Republican legislators who hoped Trump would eventually give up. In the days after the election, some were saying we should let Trump play out his legal options, he will do the right thing eventually and he’ll step aside for the good of the nation.
But he was never, ever, ever going to step aside or concede. What he does is he just keeps people on board with him. Anyone who waits for Trump to do the right thing inevitably ends up supporting him when he does the wrong thing.
This is a lesson Republicans should have learned, but they’re scared of his supporters. None of them have supporters who would potentially risk their lives to storm the Capitol building.
The best check on power? The people
There have been surprises in both the strengths and weaknesses of America’s institutions over the last few years. For example, federalism has turned out to be quite an effective check on presidential power when it’s been exercised by someone like Trump, which is perhaps not something Democrats would have necessarily believed before.
On the other hand, we’ve seen this massive erosion of norms, especially in Congress. This has been going on for quite a while and McConnell has been one of the major eroders of norms for a long time. Congress was never really an effective check on Trump.
Ultimately, after the election, it was local and state officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Aaron Van Langevelde, a member of Michigan’s board of state canvassers, who said enough is enough when members of Congress weren’t doing it.
And despite the fact Trump has packed the federal courts and Supreme Court with conservative judges, none of his legal challenges went anywhere.
But in the end, the lesson is the most effective check is the election. It is the voice of the people. For every norm that Trump broke, for every anti-democratic thing he did, there was a bigger backlash.
We saw an election with one of the biggest turnouts in history. We had four years of pretty consistent protests in the streets. And in the end, this is the most important check on the presidency that there is.