2020 has, globally, been an extraordinary year. On 1 January, COVID was not big news, but it quickly became the dominant issue in virtually every country in the world. Globally, deaths total more than 1.6 million people, and the world economy has shrunk by approximately 4.5% which is a bigger fall than was caused by the Global Financial Crisis.

What can we learn from this experience and, in particular, are there any positive lessons from 2020?

Overall, for most people, 2020 has been a very difficult year, but there is a tremendous amount we can learn from the way that different countries have responded to the challenges. Both globally and specifically in the UK there are important lessons about what not to do, and also some very positive points that we should not forget:

  • globally, we have seen an enormous variety of responses by different governments – it is now clear what works and what does not – and we have also seen that a slide towards bad government can be reversed; and
  • in the UK, we have seen the penalty for bad government and in particular for an ideology which blocks sound policy-making, but we’ve also seen the power of activism to reverse bad decisions and, critically, we have been reminded that government can afford to do what it needs to do.

Lessons from Around the World

There is a lot we can learn from the responses of each country to the COVID pandemic. And the other big event 2020 – the US presidential election – also has important lessons.

For virtually every government in the world, COVID posed a difficult challenge. The advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) was explicit:

“We can only say what we know, and we can only act on what we know. … We know that COVID-19 spreads fast, and we know that it is deadly – 10 times deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic. We know that the virus can spread more easily in crowded environments like nursing homes. We know that early case-finding, testing, isolating caring for every case and tracing every contact is essential for stopping transmission.

We know that in some countries, cases are doubling every 3 to 4 days. However, while COVID-19 accelerates very fast, it decelerates much more slowly. In other words, the way down is much slower than the way up. That means control measures must be lifted slowly, and with control. It cannot happen all at once. Control measures can only be lifted if the right public health measures are in place, including significant capacity for contact tracing.”

And as Mike Ryan (WHO) pointed out, delaying important decisions is literally fatal:

“Be fast, have no regrets… you must be the first mover: the virus will always get you if you don’t move fast…Perfection is the enemy of the good… Speed trumps perfection.”

Some countries followed the WHO guidelines closely, going in “hard and early” as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put it, and only relaxing the guidelines once the right public health measures were in place. Other countries, trying to strike some kind of illusory ‘balance’ between impact on the economy and loss of life, flirted with other strategies like herd immunity through exposure to the virus.

The chart below, based on data from the OECD and Statista, shows the results achieved by a selection of major countries.

The first lesson is that this is not an issue of balance: there is a clear correlation between those countries which controlled the virus effectively and those whose economies were less badly damaged.

The average contraction in GDP for the selected countries was just under 6% and the average number of deaths from COVID was just over 500 per million. The chart shows which countries were above and below average on these two measures.

Quite a few countries did well on both measures. A few countries had a (very slightly) less devastating economic experience, but a bad COVID death toll. India and Greece did well in saving lives but had serious economic challenges. And quite a few did badly on both measures.

The fact that the box titled “good on economy, bad on COVID” is – apart from its bottom left-hand corner – empty shows that there is no empirical evidence that a strategy of targeting the top right-hand area of the chart was ever feasible. In reality, the choice facing each government was to be good on both or bad on both.

The second lesson, therefore, which the chart makes abundantly clear, is that strategy matters: there is an enormous difference in the results achieved by governments which adopted sound strategies and those which did not.


In the US, Donald Trump had long been controversial. But perhaps his most controversial acts came at the time of the election. He made it increasingly clear that he did not feel that he should be bound by the results, and he adopted a series of legal, political and PR challenges to the results when they came in. In other words, made it clear that retaining power was more important than preserving US democracy.

Trump has lost almost all of his legal challenges and the electoral college has confirmed Biden as President-elect. This does not completely negate his ability to further damage his country, but it does reduce it enormously. Had he managed to overturn the election, a slide into destructive dictatorship would have been likely.

So, the third lesson is that positive change is possible. Despite the significant advantages of being the incumbent President, of having news channels like Fox News which uncritically supported him and of a powerful and effective use of propaganda in social and other media, the American system had – just – enough checks and balances to ensure that democracy prevailed.

Bad governments sometimes manage to give the impression of invulnerability; they are not invulnerable. Determined opposition can produce change.

Need and Scope for Changing UK Policy

As the chart above demonstrates, the UK government is one of the worst performers in the world. And this fact alone demonstrates that we need a change in direction and in ideology.

And there are other important areas in which the government is performing far worse than we should expect:

  • we are in the second half of the last month of the year and the spectre of a no-deal Brexit on 1 January, 2021 has not yet been exorcised;
  • the government has demonstrated a Trump-like willingness to attack democratic institutions and ignore the rule of law; and
  • the government appears to be indulging in industrial scale plunder of the public purse on behalf of its cronies.

As the New York Times put it in relation to the government’s ‘procurement’ of COVID-related products and services:

“The British central government published data on pandemic-related contracts worth $22 billion awarded from January through November. Many more contracts remain secret. Taken together, about half of that $22 billion went to companies with political connections, no prior experience or histories of controversy.”

More positively, this year has also started to raise people’s awareness of these issues and demonstrated the power of new kinds of activism to change them:

In the UK, we still have a government with potential to do a great deal of damage, but we can also see a fourth lesson: if we are determined and resourceful, and if we work together, we can achieve positive policy change.

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