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The Politics of Covid-19 Mortality

Can theories from political science and related disciplines help explain and predict cross-national patterns in Covid-19 deaths? In a new project, a team from the Institutions and Political Inequality Research Unit and UC Riverside explores how country and government features relate to Covid-19 mortality. They find that over time, measures of institutional and interpersonal trust become powerful predictors of the distribution of Covid-19 deaths. In particular, deaths are fewer in countries where people report higher trust in government, and in countries with higher levels of interpersonal trust.

“Patterns are still in flux!”, says Alexandra Scacco, one of the working paper’s co-authors. Researchers will need to continuously re-analyze available data in order to learn more about what affects mortality, while reflecting on what counts as a Covid-19-induced death in the first place. This is why Scacco is now launching a project that challenges scholars to build statistical models predicting Covid-19 mortality together with Miriam A. Golden of the European University Institute based on the existing data.

With the Covid-19 pandemic evolving rapidly, results continue to change over time. For example, demographic features such as the age of a country’s population have become less important, while measures of state capacity - such as a composite measure of government effectiveness - have become more important over time. The researchers were also struck by how little political institutions and political priorities mattered, relative to factors such as state capacity or trust in government. It seems that while demographic and health predictors were very important at early stages of the pandemic, measures of government effectiveness and institutional trust are becoming more powerful predictors of the distribution of Covid deaths over time.

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22 December 2020 / fjb

Working Paper:

The COVID-19 Model Challenges

The team is currently reaching out to social scientists around the globe to solve the puzzle of how political and social features of countries relate to cumulative COVID-19 deaths: Does democracy save lives? Do female political leaders respond more effectively to public health crises? Are ethnically diverse societies more vulnerable to COVID-19?

The challenge asks scholars to build their own statistical models that predict future COVID-19 mortality across and within select countries (Mexico, India, USA). The idea is to crowdsource ideas and for scholars to work with the data assembled so far (see Dashboard).

Data Quality:

The aim was to find quality data for as many countries as possible. But even then, there was certainly variation in data quality across measures. For example, inequality data is often of mixed quality.


For the June 2021 analysis, the team plans to utilize an alternative type of data.


"Excess mortality" data has the advantage of not requiring attribution of deaths to Covid-19. Unless there are large-scale shocks that coincide with the period of the pandemic, such as an earthquake or a famine, the excess deaths measure offers a good estimate when compared against historical averages.

The Institutions and Political Inequality Research Unit at WZB focuses on the political economy of social and political inequality.

Follow the team on Twitter:

@alex_scacco | @dadakim | @maqartan | @cmbosancianu | @sampskc | @hannohilbig | @nils_lieber