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Political Scientists Discuss the Role of Federalism in Combating Coronavirus at DRCLAS Webinar

The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies hosted a webinar on federalism and COVID-19.
The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies hosted a webinar on federalism and COVID-19. By Owen A. Berger
By Isabella E. Peña and Davin W. Shi, Contributing Writers

Political science professors analyzed how countries with federalist systems — those that combine national and regional governance — responded to the coronavirus pandemic at an online event hosted Tuesday by Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

Agustina Giraudy, a professor at American University, and Kent Eaton, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, argued that federalism caused Mexico, Brazil, and the United States to tackle the pandemic differently at local and national levels.

“We find that the strength and internal organization of political parties, the popularity of the president, and the coalitions that governors made explain why we saw such wide variations across countries and within countries,” Giraudy said.

Giraudy’s research on the subject relies on a “policy stringency index,” a measure that compares the relative rigor of policies that different states enact by taking into account factors like school closures and public event cancellations. For example, states that Trump won in the 2016 U.S. presidential election tended to have lower policy stringency scores than states that Trump lost, according to Eva Rios, a Ph.D. student at Brown University who co-authored the paper with Giraudy.

Giraudy said that, while the media has portrayed federal governments as ineffective in dealing with the virus, federalism does have some advantages.

“We have found in countries where you don’t have a president who is responsible that it is great to have federalism because you can have governors who can take care of that,” she said.

Giraudy also said, however, that local authorities may also choose to take less stringent actions in response to the coronavirus in federalist systems.

“It’s true that federalism may also empower governors who want to oppose stricter policies at the national level. Federalism is a double-edged sword,” she said.

Although federalist systems allow for disagreement on the national and local levels, Eaton posited that federalism is not “inherently disadvantaged” relative to unitary systems — where there is only one central government — in dealing with the virus.

“I think overstating the federal versus non-federal distinction really blinds us to the significant powers that subnational actors have in unitary systems,” he said. “In theory, the national government can withdraw those delegated powers, but they really often can’t.”

In an interview after the event, Harvard Government professor Alisha C. Holland, who led the discussion, emphasized the importance of comparing different countries’ approaches to a global problem.

“There are too few moments when Latin American and American politics intersect, and on an important issue like COVID, it is really wonderful to see scholars trying to look across very different countries to see how federalism impacted public health responses,” Holland said.

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