Anthony Fauci listens to President Donald Trump speak to reporters following a meeting of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 7.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

NEWS ANALYSIS

  • Nations around the world have scrambled to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • But the rapid pace at which the crisis has overtaken health systems in the US and the UK has exposed, and perhaps accelerated, the withering health of these democracies.
  • Now, with a president who has touted sunlight and bleach as cures, the US may well resemble the same "outlier" countries it has long believed itself to be above.
  • "We are the outlier," a career epidemiologist tells Insider.
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.


Just a few months ago, when borders were closing and the US government had begun to summon its citizens home from abroad, I messaged an American friend in Tokyo to see if he was planning to return. Things were still relatively calm in Japan, he reported. The situation appeared to be under control; the rate of new coronavirus infections had not yet begun to spiral.

Japan was still considered to be an "outlier" when it came to responding to the virus, a lucky nation whose citizenry had thus far been markedly less afflicted than those of neighbouring China and South Korea. He was staying put for now, but every day he thought of where he might go if things got worse.

"If it were today I would seriously have to think about Beijing," he messaged me. "Totalitarian dictatorships and presidents for life sometimes have advantages. Rarely, but sometimes." Returning to the United States, he said, was not high on his list.

It was the kind of exchange that only the privileged - people with money, passports, visas, and mobility - can indulge in. His was a cold calculation, one that weighed the relative benefits of democracy and freedom of movement and information against those of a planned economy and authoritarian control.

Ten years ago - even five years ago - his conclusion would have been unthinkable. Yet now it seems, if perhaps not commonplace, at least comprehensible. For many, it might seem downright sensible. It is a shift worth marking.

The coronavirus is laying bare the tradeoffs that separate different systems of government

One might have hoped that large democratic unions like the US and the EU would have been well-prepared to face this crisis, with coordinated, collaborative response mechanisms in place across their member governments.

Instead, the rapid pace at which coronavirus has overtaken health systems on both sides of the Atlantic has exposed, and perhaps accelerated, the withering health of these democracies and the dwindling viability of the neoliberal order.

The US and UK both initially sought to downplay the spread of the virus among their populations, hoping they would somehow be spared from its devastating effects. Now, along with Spain and Italy, they lead the world in the number of confirmed cases.

Their positions at the top of the pack are partly due to the fact that authoritarian nations like China, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, appear to have been less than forthcoming about their diagnoses and death tolls. But that does not account for the whole of this divide.

A view of Russia's Zemlyanoi Val Street on April 19.
Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images
The nations with the greatest number of confirmed coronavirus cases are prosperous countries with strong political freedoms and civil liberties. These are the nations that, according to the twin logics of globalism and liberal democracy, should be able to pull through this crisis with their foundations intact and their populations in good health. (Sweden is, perhaps, a notable exception, but its purported success at bucking the virus and its economic effects seems to have been over-hyped.)

Representative governments are, by design, bad at instituting population surveillance and distributed control mechanisms, the kinds of measures that appear to have helped places like China, South Korea, and Singapore attain some degree of containment.

The unfortunate result is that citizens of free nations now find themselves in the curious position of evaluating the cost at which their hard-won freedoms come, and whether they are worth it. One hopes they come out of this crisis with their faith in democratic systems intact, but that does not seem to be the way the wind is blowing.

The pandemic risks accelerating a growing dissatisfaction with liberal democracy

For the past several years, political scientists and commentators have worried over the growing sense of disaffection, or ambivalence, that younger generations appear to harbour toward democracy. As efficiency, transparency, and speed came to be the primary values of life under late capitalism, the messy, opaque mechanisms of representative democracy seemed to be going out of style.

In 2015, an informal poll of Harvard undergraduates found that a concerning number of them did not voice support for liberal democracy. Alumni, by contrast, were more likely to vocally champion America's system of government. In 2016, the results were presented to an audience of North American academics and personnel from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security, and more.

The takeaway was that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the shared cultural values that undergird democratic systems of government were unwinding. The results of the Harvard poll were so concerning that administrators took a more comprehensive poll of students in the fall of 2017, which confirmed their anecdotal evidence "on the relative loss of confidence in liberal democracy" among the student population. (Different data came to similar conclusions.) Liberalism, it seems, had lost the plot.

The coronavirus crisis risks exacerbating, and perhaps accelerating, this trend. Never in recent memory have national and class differences been felt so acutely, and never has the American political union felt quite so imperiled. Far from being a great equaliser, COVID-19 has exposed just how entrenched the oldest societal divisions really are.

The white-collar wealthy have been relatively insulated from the virus and its disastrous effects, with better access to testing, care, and comfortable quarantines. The stock market is rallying even though the national unemployment numbers are growing grimmer by the day.

The world's "outlier" countries aren't so different from America

Now, the nation-state, long said to have entered a period of irreversible decline in the era of open borders, is back with a vengeance, as if it had been merely building its strength up all along. A new kind of global brinksmanship seems to have arrived, with nations large and small competing against one another in the race for supplies and a vaccine, and with longstanding allies having to beg one another for mutual aid.

"You kind of have a natural experiment, because all countries are different," said Ann Marie Kimball, a physician and epidemiologist who is a senior consulting fellow at the Chatham House Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs.

Before coronavirus swept the globe, the headline "Poland v. Sweden" (or Sweden v. Singapore) might have referred to a soccer match. Now it refers to a casualty count.

On Chinese tarmacs, the U.S. is outbidding its allies for protective equipment for medical personnel. "It's true," as Jean Rottner, the president of the French region of Grand Est, told a local radio network: "[O]n the tarmac the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for the orders we have made, so it's necessary to fight."

One apparent source of consolation has been that, however poorly the world's democracies may be performing, they at least appear to be doing better than the handful of nations whose responses to the threat of the coronavirus have stopped just short of denial, countries where the privileged few do not want to be.

These nations are "outliers" in a different sense - countries that do not invite kind comparisons, whose leaders have done little to nothing to mitigate the virus's rising death toll.

In late March, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested that the use of spiritual amulets of the saints and virgins can serve as a "protective shield" against infection. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appeared on national television to announce a quarantine and to demonstrate how to properly use a face mask, while also advising his citizens to drink tea with honey.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro spoke out against the lockdowns of his nation's major cities, which had been imposed by regional governors and mayors. "If we don't get back to work, Brazil could depart from democratic normalcy," he said, adding that if he were to contract the virus, his "history as an athlete" would protect him. He is now shrugging off his nation's rising death toll.

The list goes on. In Nigeria, the Yoruba king is working to mass-produce a purportedly curative mixture of bitter leaves, sulfur, black pepper, and cloves. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko has prescribed drinking vodka, playing hockey, driving tractors, goat farming, and going to the sauna.

Turkmenistan celebrated "World Health Day" with country-wide mass sporting events, including cycling, boxing, and gymnastics. The government has sought to avoid using the word "coronavirus" in its official communications, and has placed a de-facto gag order on doctors to prevent news of the virus from spreading.

In nearby Tajikistan, the government refrained from enforcing any public precautions for weeks, claiming the virus had not breached its borders. Now it is in crisis mode, with at least 230 reported cases.

A market in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on April 8, 2020.
Igor Sasin/AFP/Getty
When these headlines first began to emerge, one could not help but detect something resembling glee, or perhaps schadenfreude, at the plight of these countries, with their authoritarian leaders and their outlandish cures. Unenviable outliers, nations on the losing end of the global supply chain.

To read of their botched responses to the virus was to try to comfort oneself with the discomfiting reminder that things can always get worse. They also fit the familiar narrative according to which authoritarian states are always less secure, less prepared, and more imperiled than developed democracies.

Yet these outlandish and dangerous attempts to deny the spread of the virus share the same logic as recent pronouncements from the White House. President Donald Trump has touted no shortage of false cures. First it was malaria pills, then it was bleach and sunlight.

At the White House's daily press briefings, epidemiological expertise is no sooner presented to the public than it is denied or contradicted, in a kind of crude, real-time performance of the decline of American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, the US death count continues to be revised upwards.

If there is one constant theme of the American story, it is the illusion that we are better than everyone else. The US comes to the aid of failed states; it is not one itself. It is remarkable how quickly this simple belief can go from being a statement to a question, a matter for debate.

"This is breathtaking - no pun intended - what's happening with COVID-19," said Marguerite Pappaioanou, a career epidemiologist and veteran of the CDC and the FDA, of the situation in the US. The pandemic preparedness efforts that she spent her career working on have been disassembled and defunded during the Trump administration.

"We are the rogue country in my estimation, at this point," she told me. "We are the outlier."

Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Berkeley, CA, and a contributing editor at The Ballot. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Businessweek, The Economist, and more.

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