Winning the coronavirus fight is not about authoritarianism: it is about trust, social history, and capitalism

The moment coronavirus hit Europe and the United States, it became a global pandemic. For most Euro-American commentators, the crisis of the ‘other’ – of an authoritarian China, an inefficient, despotic Southeast Asia – suddenly hit home. The world watched in breathless horror as armed vehicles were brought in to move coffins from Bergamo to Modena and Bologna. NYT asked, is this the price Europe pays for its open societies?

Stephen Walt, famed neo-realist, argues that the crisis will strengthen state power, and that the slow response has tarnished the “Western ‘brand’” (his emphasis). CNN wonders what happens when coronavirus meets democracy, as if South Korea and Taiwan hadn’t been fighting and containing the virus for a month beforehand.

Speaking of Italy’s slow response to the crisis, Walter Ricciardi, a World Health Organization board member and top advisor to the health ministry, laments: “It’s not easy in a liberal democracy.”

Against this, South Korea and Taiwan have been deployed as counterexamples of exemplar democracies that have successfully contained the virus. Kang Kyung-wha, Korea’s Foreign Minister, asserted: “The basic principle is openness, transparency, and fully keeping the public informed.”

But as cases unfold around the globe, the focus on democracy vs. authoritarianism seems to miss the point. A more granular perspective on these cross-national comparisons – one that listens to what’s happening on the ground – does much more to illuminate the actual problem of epidemic containment: one of political framing, trust between a government and its citizens, and the specific social histories that have become critical for collective action (or lack thereof).

Why it’s not just about democracy: A Language of Collective Care

In Angela Merkel’s unprecedented speech last Thursday, she emphasized: “Such restrictions can only be justified as an absolute necessity. In a democracy, they should never be decided lightly and only temporarily – but at the moment they are indispensable to save lives.” She was speaking to a fearful public, but also seemed to be giving an impassioned defense of democracy in a time when it is under assault. The day before, all schools had been shut down in Germany. Religious gatherings were banned, non-essential shops closed.

It seems trivial to point out that containment measures are possible in a democratic society. Their effectiveness, however, depends on how they are framed. After watching the horror of Italy’s overflowing hospitals, Germany turned to stricter measures. The messaging from government officials of all levels has been clear: the safety of the population comes first; the economy comes later.

“The way in which these measures have been framed in Continental Europe is about caring for the collective community,” says Claudio Sopranzetti, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Central European University.

“We’re used to thinking of care as something we give as presents. Now, care is something that is given at a distance.”

In stark contrast, what Sopranzetti calls ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ – the US and the UK – have been under intense scrutiny for their perceived failure in epidemic control. As governments around the world spoke the language of “flattening the curve,” Johnson’s government emerged with the singular strategy of “herd immunity”: people will die, Johnson said, and we will keep calm and carry on. Meanwhile, US senators sold their stock and told the public to calm down.

“The US and the UK frame it as protecting people’s freedom, but really what they’re saying is, we’re going to protect the economy. We’re not going to implement tough measures, and present that as something that is saving economic processes rather than this language of reciprocal care.”

It is the focus on protecting a fragile economy, rather than it is on any philosophical notion of liberty that has guided response, and failure, in those countries. Meanwhile, collective care has emerged in certain European and Asian countries as a language for democratic resistance against the pandemic.

Trust and social history

In Thailand, General Prayut Chan-ocha spoke the now infamous words in his national address: “Thailand must be victorious!” The language of battle was deployed – no differently from how it was previously deployed by the CCP – but, against the abysmally low levels of trust in the Thai military, the words rang hollow. Netizens responded with resigned mockery: we don’t need victory; we just want to stay alive.  

This highlights the second critical dimension that cuts across democracy and authoritarianism: pre-existing levels of trust in the government.

“It’s not necessarily that all authoritarian systems have a better system of trust – Thailand being a big case,” Sopranzetti points out, “in Thailand, an authoritarian government proved particularly inefficient because it’s not trusted.”

“You can have a liberal democratic state in which trust is very low, like Italy, or a liberal democratic government where trust is very high, like the UK, similarly you can have a more authoritarian government where trust is very high, like Singapore, and you can have one where trust is very low, like Thailand,” says Sopranzetti.

In Italy, the population’s distrust – even contempt – of the government accentuated its skepticism of the virus. Italy is now under some of the harshest lockdown measures in Europe, but the path to imposing these measures was marked by communication problems and inconsistent messaging. Citizens responded with a combination of panic and complacency. It wasn’t until lockdown that people really began to comprehend the seriousness of what they were about to face. Even then, it is still unclear whether citizens have truly grasped the magnitude of the situation – as the number of cases in Italy continues to rise, several Italian mayors have come out to publicly condemn those ignoring quarantine protocols.

“I’m getting news that some would like to throw graduation parties,” Vincenzo De Luca, president of the southern Italian region of Campania, said in a Facebook live statement. “We will send police. With flame-throwers.”

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the government built trust with its open approach to the crisis, putting the health of its people first and foremost. Vietnam shares a border with China, yet cases have hovered at just above one hundred. While the FT highlighted the “one-party state…a top down government that’s good at responding to natural disasters,” it doesn’t quite capture what’s happening on the ground. Citizens writing of the crisis highlight subtler, more powerful aspects: transparency, community empowerment, and deployment of collective care in a manner unimaginable in the US. The government has been lauded for providing both citizens and foreigners with food, shelter and medical attention under quarantine. Meanwhile, a V-pop public health song co-created with a group of original composers went viral.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a Blitz spirit and trust in British ‘experts’ has delayed public mobilization against the crisis. While Johnson doesn’t enjoy the broad support that the Vietnamese military does, to some, the government’s policies seem smart – as CNN scathingly writes, “smart in that very British post-colonial, Brexit way of thinking you are smarter than pretty much all other countries, based on the solid hunch of a few clever people, and some confidence.”

The social history of the war and its other slogan, “keep calm and carry on”, permeated the British public as pubs remained full shortly after Johnson’s first announcement. It wasn’t until March 20 that the pubs were ordered shut, some vowing to stay open in defiance of government orders. One day before the UK lockdown, some Brits still headed out for one last pint.

A sign displayed outside an apartment that reads “We’re staying at home. Do the same.”

Community containment efforts

When public trust is low, efforts emerge at the local level that do much more to contain the virus than any authoritarian government could.

In Hong Kong, the public did not wait for the CCP-backed government to impose harsh measures. Rather, it is the memory of SARS that lingers in the territory’s collective consciousness – one that traumatized Hong Kong and led its citizens to mobilize a rapid community response to coronavirus. Coronavirus containment was a grassroots movement of mask-wearing, hand washing, social distancing and working from home – some shops refuse entry if patrons don’t wear masks, while hand sanitizers sit ubiquitously at receptions and cashier stations.

In Italy, “This system of care and solidarity really emerged in an interesting and unexpected way,” Sopranzetti says. “There’s something that happens in crisis…actual collective organizing and support become necessary and profound.”

“What I’m seeing a lot in Italy is the emergence of an enormous amount of volunteering, building-based solidarity of people who are protecting older people around them.” He speaks of younger people doing grocery shopping for the elderly, notes being slipped underneath doors with phone numbers and offers to help. On Italian balconies, at 6 pm, the balcony concerts are a daily appointment of sonorous communal solidarity.

In the US, the failure of the federal government to adequately ensure personal protective equipment (PPE) for its medical health professionals is also being met with a local response – in a viral exchange, New York governor Andrew Cuomo appealed to his Twitter base for help, and famed designer Christian Siriano offered to have his team sew masks. Thousands of others have written to Cuomo to help.

The localized nature of responses in the US has to be read as part of a broader history of privatized social care in which donation platforms play an important role in crowdfunding hospital or education expenses.

A satirical article by the Onion reads: Health Experts Worry Coronavirus Will Overwhelm America’s GoFundMe System.

But as seamstresses in Brooklyn basements step in to provide PPE where the federal government can’t, the satire cuts a little too close to the bone.

Not a failure of democracy: a failure of free-market capitalism

This gets to the final, and most important point: that the failure in response is not likely rooted in political, but rather economic systems.

“If you take two countries like Germany and the US, with similar democratic systems, the way Trump and Merkel are talking about this moment is profoundly different – you have one saying, if one person is left out, then everyone is at risk, on the opposite side you have the US saying, we want to preserve our economy so that is our first priority,” Sopranzetti points out.

“I think what this epidemic is showing me very strongly is that market logic does not work in this environment.”

Poor coronavirus containment is not the price to be paid for an open society. It is the price to be paid for a society that prioritizes a neoliberal, free market-driven ideology with little regard for the weak. In Anand Giridharidas’s words, “Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling.”

Even now as New York’s hospital beds overflow and medical professionals across the US work without PPE, NYT columnists David Katz and Thomas Friedman continue to fret over the economy. “A very small number, tragically, will die,” Friedman writes. But he recommends that “we let many of us get the coronavirus, recover and get back to work.” President Trump seems to have taken their suggestion seriously. It is a horrifying echo of Johnson’s ‘herd immunity’ concept – before the British government backtracked as it recognized the blood it would have on its hands. In stark contrast, it is Cuba that is sending medical aid and teams of surgeons to Italy and Jamaica.

In Thailand, authoritarian incompetence is mitigated by a strong system of universal healthcare, where testing is limited but free. Gaps in the system of the state’s welfare system – highlighted by the crush of migrant workers in Mo Chit, or on the Cambodian and the Myanmar borders – are where the country is weakest in its ‘war’ against coronavirus.

It is important to separate the failure of the market from the failure of democracy. As historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Foreign Policy’s assembly of experts forewarn of the end of open societies, local voices in Asia have emerged vociferously in their defense. In Hong Kong, the massive spread of SARS was partly due to a CCP cover-up. The bitter lesson of 2003 was that authoritarianism kills. In Thailand, memories of the 1976 massacre remind us of this too.

In the coronavirus crisis, the price to pay for inefficiency – NOT open society – is death. This is the price that has always been paid for authoritarianism. But the price to pay for governments that refuse to support their poor – democratic or authoritarian – will be no less bloody.

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[UPDATE-1] Thailand reported one more coronavirus related death on Friday

Thailand has reported first coronavirus-related death in months, the Ministry of Public Health announced on Friday. 
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