What are the reasons for the shortcomings of liberal democratic societies like the US and Europe vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes like China and North Korea in crisis management?
Despite the US government’s allegations of China fudging its numbers, the country’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is among the lowest in the world. Its neighbor North Korea seems relatively untouched by the crisis too. On the other hand, countries in the West continue to grapple with what is the worst global health crisis in almost a century. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, authoritarian regimes seem to be taking the cake when it comes to disease control.
The ability to manage a global pandemic seems to have replaced nuclear weapons and GDP size as the new symbol of national power. Thanks to a crisis of its own making, China has enriched its credentials on the global stage. Though China’s star has been on the rise since the 2008 global economic meltdown, it’s iron-clad handling of the coronavirus pandemic has earned it respect from friends as well as foes, with a little help from WHO chief, Dr. Tedros.
It is hard to escape the fact that Communist dictatorships – China and North Korea – have emerged relatively unscathed from what is arguably the biggest crisis facing the world since the Great Depression of 1929. In contrast, the US and its allies- once the epitome of how public healthcare systems should run – have had a poor showing which could undermine the appeal of the democratic way of life for countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar who are teetering on the brink of chaos.
Watch: How China curbed its Covid-19 outbreak?
Should the governments of the ‘free world’ invoke emergency powers and take away some public freedoms, at least until the COVID-19 crisis is over? Let’s find out.
A world at war
Though Nostradamus’ doomsday predictions would suggest a ghastly picture of a nuclear conflagration as the backdrop for a crisis of this magnitude, in COVID-19; we are not in-fighting but dealing with a single global enemy. In case the civilian leadership is indisposed or in any way unable to discharge its duties, the US military is authorized via a Presidential directive issued at the height of the Cold War to take over the reins of government. Given that Trump neither has the temperament nor the ability to listen to the experts; a military-led recovery operation in hotspots like New York could save millions of lives.
China’s Xi Jinping or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, however, would have needed no convincing to impose martial law and ban foreign travel. China has a vast network of ‘volunteers’ who act as the government’s eyes and ears within its local communities. The unexplained disappearances of the whistle-blowers who first warned the world about the virus have been attributed to these spies. Mao would have been pleased with what the system of state control instituted by him has managed to accomplish.
Speed of response
China’s attempt to mislead the world about the impact of the disease is unforgivable. However, there is no doubt that it responded far more decisively than most other countries. It imposed a sweeping lockdown that has few parallels anywhere in the world, except perhaps neighboring India. From about 80,000 confirmed cases at the peak of the crisis, the Chinese were able to significantly bring down the rate of infection by aggressive door-to-door testing and mobilizing its vast public surveillance infrastructure. Though this had human rights activists crying foul, China’s decisive curbs eventually led to the resumption of normal life much faster than expected.
Watch: Chinese state-sponsored video explaining the Covid-19 virus related conversations with the US.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tirade against China overlooks the fact that the US failed to capitalize on the time it banned international arrivals on January 31. Reports suggest that more than 430,000 continued to travel from China to the US alone, even as President Donald Trump could not make up his mind on what to do next. While he has gone on record to blame the WHO for soft-pedaling on this issue, the death toll could have been much lower if Trump had acted sooner.
Communism reborn – What’s next?
With US allies like the EU falling in line with the Chinese narrative on the spread of the disease, it appears that communism is regaining lost ground to the democratic system of governance championed by the US. China has clearly cultivated influential people at global publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal which has helped it shape public opinions in the Western Hemisphere. Its status as the manufacturing powerhouse of the world has positioned it as a counterweight to the US and world capitals are taking notice. This has helped it make counter opposition and build a loyal following among African and Central Asian countries, where the US has traditionally enjoyed little influence.
Future historians will probably point to the 2020s as the decade when the clash of two ideologies – Democracy and Communism – led to the evolution of the new world order.
Largely forgotten after the collapse of the Soviet Union, communism is now on a resurgent curve even in the biggest and most vibrant free societies. For example, the creeping rise of legally-mandated public surveillance programs and the threat of cyber warfare have systematically eroded public freedom.
In the context of the current pandemic, this may be seen as a necessary step to ensure the survival of ordinary people. You can put it down to the present circumstances; however, it is hard to deny that authoritarianism can be a powerful tool of state policy in times of a major crisis. The Indian Left parties could well use this episode to justify the relevance of communism in the modern milieu.
For all its ills, Communism has been able to do what Democracy could not in the present scenario – limit the loss of life in the absence of a long-term cure.