Pandemics and politics: Responding to the COVID-19 Challenge

It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether You’re a Democracy or a Dictatorship

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is fresh evidence for this proposition. The cause is in all likelihood tiny and accidental: a genetic mutation in a virus, which then spreads into the human population. Like earlier epidemics throughout history, it could have happened with no human intentionality. Its consequences are already momentous and will be even more so before it is over. a high degree of economic inequality means that people don’t have good nutrition or access to health care, and they don’t have savings or other resources. “Even during a pandemic, they have to continue working and use public transportation. So they don’t observe social distancing or sheltering-in-place and therefore they become more exposed to the potential consequences of the virus. The novel coronavirus can easily be seen as a profoundly anti-democratic force. In its first eight months, from early January to mid-August, it produced over 20 million cases of the COVID-19 disease. That disease has killed over 800,000 people and counting; put millions out of work; drastically curtailed travel; precipitated states of emergency; and caused citizens to be placed under detailed and intrusive administrative control, demonstrations to be banned, and elections to be rescheduled or postponed. Bitter disagreements have arisen about when and how to ease restrictions on movement.

COVID-19 has generated a revival of conspiracy theories and unjustified recriminations and prompted absurd denials of medical reality by certain political leaders. Among states, the pandemic has actually heightened some long-existing disputes, most notably those on trade and other matters between China and the United States. The capacity of the United Nations system to address epidemics has been called into question, not least in harsh American criticisms of the World Health Organization (WHO). It is too simple to cast the pandemic crisis merely as a narrative of rampant authoritarianism versus embattled democracy. The long history of pandemics, earthquakes, and other disasters reminds us of the enduring complexity of disaster management, and of the many controversies surrounding it, including the causes of and responses to plagues.

States respond in different ways, raising questions regarding the relative effectiveness of democratic versus authoritarian states. International health organizations, especially the WHO, have important roles in dealing with epidemics, whether regional or global. Yet their formal powers are limited and their effectiveness depends on state cooperation. Epidemics, and actions to control them, do sometimes play a part in increased authoritarianism, but they can also give rise to more positive initiatives of various kinds.

Pandemic History

The well-documented history of pandemics suggests that we do not live in uniquely dangerous times. We tend to underestimate past threats and disasters because we know that humankind survived them. Yet many past crises appeared at the time to be every bit as menacing and disruptive as the present crisis. China, in particular, has been tagged as a possible source of all three plague pandemics, as well as the current coronavirus one. A team of 24 palaeobiologists reported in 2010 that all three historical pandemics had been caused by the same bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Regarding its means of transmission, stated: ‘Y. pestis evolved in or near China and has been transmitted via multiple epidemics that followed various routes, probably including transmissions to West Asia via the Silk Road and to Africa by Chinese marine voyages.

The Impact on Global Politics

Since the end of the Cold War, various political commentators have observed the apparent rise and fall of American dominance and hegemony within the international arena. After an explicit ‘unipolar’ decade during the 1990s, when US strength was at its maximum capacity in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, American global power seems to have diminished in relation to the rest of the world over the first two decades of the 21st century. However, despite such fluid dynamics, the long-established American role as the premier global power appears to remain just about intact in terms of its economic, military, and cultural status. Yet the extent of its hegemony of the 1990s has clearly faded, and the degree of relative American decline has been exposed by various booming economies ‘catching up’ from within the ‘BRICS’ nations, and in particular, China, which has recently enjoyed rapid growth in its economic power and global influence.

As the world adjusts to the new normal in the wake of the pandemic’s destructive outbreak, further challenges undoubtedly lie ahead for political leaders, key political institutions, and globalized political structures. Pre-existing disputes between superpowers have been heightened by the crisis and continue to simmer, with events in Hong Kong currently at the epicenter of Sino-western tensions. Politics and political processes have often struggled to adapt to the demands imposed by the pandemic, both within national governments and international agencies. COVID-19 has considerable potential to irrevocably alter the world’s balance of power, with significant implications for the structure of global politics in the long term. The pandemic has fully exposed the interconnected dynamics between foreign and domestic policy and international structures. The tensions unleashed are unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

Seeing things New way

What follows is an attempt to set out how China will have seen the background against which this contact took place and what is expected from it. Sometimes the terminology is necessarily formulaic, reflecting the way that Chinese policies are couched. But it draws on that language to convey a sense of how key issues are perceived by a Chinese Communist Party that has always used language in deliberate and calculated ways to shape perceptions and determine outcomes. Global leadership at both an individual and institutional level has also been subject to much scrutiny during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the context of foreign policy, the international relations theory known as ‘neoliberal institutionalism’ argues that global bodies and institutions will tend to positively generate cooperation and improve relations between states. This reflects a more positive view of both human nature and the dynamics of the international order.

The Collage of Experiences Around the World

whether democracies do a better job or a worse job than dictatorships in managing health crises. The second is over whether the governments are prepared with the requisite capacity to deal with health emergencies. The third debate is on how economic inequality makes a country vulnerable to relatively harsher consequences than others that are better off on that score. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its spread, it is far too early to take stock and identify winners and losers among countries. However, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are among the few countries that stand out for having state capacity and strong government programs in place to deal with such emergencies. Those countries had strong government programs in public health in particular because they are rich countries, and also because they became wiser after having encountered health emergencies like SARS in the past, he noted. The strength of their state capacity and public health programs mattered more than the form of government.

Being a democracy helps in general because it’s easier for you as a government to generate trust among the population in order to cope with a pandemic, But if you don’t have strong government resources or capabilities, then you’re going to be at a disadvantage. That is unfortunate because, in a pandemic, it is essential that governments exchange information about the spread of the disease and about what works and doesn’t work in containing the spread of the virus, The World Health Organization has been trying to forge international collaborations to try and develop effective therapeutic treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19.

“The epic battle between mankind and microbes has been raging for millennia. Bacteria and viruses have, aside from famines and wars, proven to be the most lethal enemy of mankind in history. The Covid-19 crisis has confronted liberal democracies with a series of immediate and long-term risks, How has the Covid-19 crisis altered the relationship between citizens and the state? How can we rebuild and strengthen international governance mechanisms to better prevent the outbreak of future pandemics? To answer these questions, we have to think and act deep existentially.”

VIJAY MANGUKIYA, Author

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