The coronavirus pandemic caught the world unguarded. With the notable exception of the Republic of Korea, a handful of other countries and China, which acted quickly, reversing its initial denial, all the rest around the world have failed, in varying degrees, in responding to the scourge in a timely and effective fashion.
Three months after the outbreak, infection cases are approaching one million, leaving a trail of dead by their tens of thousands. And, this is still a rising curve.
If there are cases in statehood where governments have both the monopoly and the obligation to impress on their people as a matter of urgency, this pandemic was certainly one of them. It is difficult to comprehend such sluggishness, equivocation and sickening neglection on the part of so many of them while the catastrophe was looming large. And when push came to shove, many states were exposed for their lack of adequate capacity. If we can speak of anything good that this virus has so far offered us, it is the accidental role it played as a tall dressing mirror for each state.
To be fair, none of them could be expected to be fully prepared for a pandemic of such colossal magnitude. Even the most elaborate national health systems are designed to deal with well charted health conditions and foreseeable emergencies. Still, they were slow in grasping the potency of the hazard once it emerged clearly, and when they eventually did, they were indecisive on how to respond best to arrest its spread.
The governments can be given scores for their performance on two scales, one measuring the proportion of the number of tests for the disease in relation to the population, particularly in the most affected areas, in ascending order, and the other showing the ratio of deaths per thousand cases, in descending order. Only sustained, extensive testing can enable the governments to realistically project the scope and duration of the emergency. The rest will be shadow-boxing.
National lockdowns have become inevitable in the haze of the unpredictable spread of the disease. States which acted early on, doubled down on the most affected areas and groups, sealing them off, and closed their borders to the source regions of the epidemic. The laggards, meaning the majority, had no chance to employ similar targeted responses. Hence the ghost cities across the world today.
Now it is a race against time to turn the peak so that health systems do not collapse altogether under the strain.
Let us hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Once the dust settles, the governments -and the perceived role of the states- will inevitably come under greater scrutiny. Whether they are democratic or authoritarian will not matter. That differentiation will not spare any of them from attention. A common yardstick for all will be the effectiveness of the state capacity when the call for it to deliver came.
Capacity depends on legions of professionals and material strength, which in turn rests on a sound economy, which in turn requires good governance. For democratic nations, the shortcomings exposed by the pandemic will likely be debated within the framework of their established checks and balances, and under the growing pressure of their vibrant civil societies. The Western European societies in particular will have to come to terms with their innate myopia for realities beyond their well-cushioned lives, so that next time they become more conscious and agile before the eleventh hour.
In a broader perspective, the year 2020 will probably represent the “end of the beginning” of post-neoliberalism. The 2008 financial crisis -more than anything else, a product of neoliberal greed- was dealt with big business methods, effectively sidestepping the underlying cause of gross misallocation. This time around, the governments are caught in its tracks. It is already telling that the governments and parliaments of major economies have announced, in quick succession, economic support schemes for all workers and businesses, big or small, as economic activity comes to a screeching halt, so that they can survive the impact.
From now on, it will take more than impudence for any politician to prioritize wild market mechanisms in providing social and health security, as well as job security. States will feel the pressure to free their social agendas from the profiteering onslaught. It should be noted that the culture of making these agendas unduly dependent on market requirements have, to a considerable degree, blunted the reflex of many democratic governments, causing them to waste precious time before they could put their act together in the face of the outbreak.
In this process however there will be no sensible reason why the democracies cannot improve or -if need be- overhaul their economic and social policies. For their distinct advantage is that the state, as the instrument of rule and order, functions under the constraints of the population who -at least in theory- constantly sees to it that it remains within the confines of the purposes it is assigned and also lives up to them. This interaction is the primary asset for these states allowing them to enjoy consensual legitimacy and to be fit at the same time.
An illustration of this healthy relationship is already on display. Scores of national or local authorities across Europe and North America have imposed curfews. The vast majority of the people are willingly and fully complying with the restriction, and in fact turning it into a setting of novel social interaction. Here again a give-and-take is involved. The state opens its purse to look after its citizens and to make sure they do not lose their jobs or businesses. A primary virtue of democracy is that the undiluted recognition of individual rights and freedoms and their well-being disciplines people in a manner where respect for others’ life space becomes as sacrosanct as one’s own. Democracies, in that sense, are inherently the most disciplined societies.
My accolade for democracies stops here. For they have also proven, time and again, that their immune system is weak when faced with populism. Age-old prejudices, never deep beneath the skin, and elections constitute a combustible mix, carrying bigotry to or near power. At each economic hardship or geopolitical fallout, these prejudices replace wisdom, and there are always the numbers that lend prominence to populist figures. Populism does not only undermine the integrity of democratic institutions and mechanisms. It weakens the state, democratic or not.
The ideological underpinnings of any populism require its leader and movement to devise a self-perpetuating legitimacy diverging from accountability. Popular concerns and fears may be useful in attracting people to polarizing agendas, but sustaining that support longer needs an appealing communal, nationalistic, religious or civilizational distraction from their actual needs. This is big investment, influencing as well as subordinating all other allocations the state has to make in providing services. The mindset behind it impacts badly on decisions over true emergencies.
This brings us to the autocracies. Populist or not, they generally follow similar patterns in the lopsided distribution of their limited resources. The security and the economic power of the ruling elite acquires preeminence as their seeming strength is equated with the survival of the country. Countries under this rubric are ill-prepared to cope with the Covid-19 outbreak. This mostly “South” has not yet come with sizeable numbers into the constantly updated case figures posted by the World Health Organization. It is obvious that the low number of registered cases does not imply they are mostly spared from the contagion. Rather, they are late in discovering or in admitting the true extent of the infection.
When it comes to the standing of these regimes as they fight this outbreak, one may be tempted to conclude that it will improve their fortunes as they become more central to the peoples’ lives. While there is some merit in this line of thinking as the states’ role has grown more essential now than in normal times, I tend to assume otherwise. These states are being tested not only for the efficiency of their response to the ongoing emergency, but on a more fundamental level for the veracity of their projected invincibility before the eyes of their people. The likelihood is that many will prove to be “paper tigers”.
On international level, matters look even more convoluted. The “Westphalian” order seems to have instantly resurrected as the norm in facing the viral enemy. It is as if the world had little to add in the form of international operability in the almost four centuries that has since elapsed. Nowhere has this retreat to national space been more dramatic than in the European Union. This avowedly supranational entity appeared melting down. As the pandemic struck towns and entire regions, national governments raced to halt movement across their borders. Apparently, the EU had no truly dependable rules -or worse, conviction- rendering its external borders secure for all in an emergency. We already had a glimpse of that during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Again, individual governments improvised their own responses to the outbreak. Only then, the EU as a whole congregated, and only to catch up with what national governments had already set. Sometime from now, I suspect this episode will be read back to back with Brexit.
Globally, never since the end of the Second World War the state of communication for joint action among major powers on matters of common concern has been as poor as it currently is.
Whereas one expects at least an expression of commonality, the U.S. Administration is busy suggesting a geopolitical import to the virus. And, China looks poised to capitalize on its success in containing the pandemic. China’s performance is the combined result of the availability of vast resources to the state, its existential urge to keep economic growth and expansion on track, the central significance of maintaining the standard welfare of its citizens for the regime’s credibility, and finally, the assiduously studied SARS experience. Still, its initial secrecy and prevarication was sufficient for the disease to claim so many lives in its epicenter province.
The state of the U.S.-China relations has structural international underpinnings. Until a decade ago, it was fashionable to discuss if the “Washington consensus” was being supplanted by the “Beijing consensus”. It was an allegory for centralized and autocratic alternative for achieving high economic growth. Ten years on, it is proving to be a self-fulfilling prophecy especially for the United States, yet only to the extent of creating a void. Seen from a broader perspective, the multilateralist engagement of the Obama Administration and the self-centered style of the Trump Administration both relate to America’s predicament in the face of the utility of global freedom of trade and navigation for China and other emerging countries. This rule-based international system the West established and long benefitted from had also become the primary vehicle for others to claim space and expand to its own detriment. This naturally made people in Washington ponder. All the more so if China played foul under those rules.
Russia’s decisive reemergence as a domineering power in its “near abroad” and the Middle East in the same ten-year period has much to do with the global rebalancing with China rising.
There is another angle to look along to understand the dynamics in the current international space, alongside big power politics and the “polar” descriptions that accompany it. It is the dispersion of power. As more countries are empowering individually, the polar authority and attraction of major ones is diminishing. Regional clusters, established among states which recognize more immediate common interest, are becoming standard templates for cooperation and possibly economic integration. All this is happening against the backdrop of the weakening interest in liberalizing the international trade regime also to the benefit of relative newcomers, withdrawal of the USA from a host of international commitments, including the climate agenda, the EU’s now proven impotency as a global, even regional, player, alongside other trends which do not bode well for the future of globally shared agendas.
This was roughly the snapshot when Covid-19 visited us. States became the protagonists in a fight for which they were mostly ill-suited. The gap between their self-assured posturing and the ensuing jamming of their public capacity was as striking as the contagion itself. The point simply is, governments now have little chance to follow through the morbid childish behavior “I did not initiate”. In our globalized environment, matters of common concern are eventually home-delivered one way or the other. These brief weeks have already demonstrated how intertwined our fates are.
And, this coronavirus is not solely about virus. Economies have stalled, supply chains disrupted, and as signaled by international financial institutions, global recession and contraction will be our next curse. How this will impact on both the peoples’ lives and the governments’ standing is not a mystery. Contagion of a different sort is in the offing.
Also, we have to come to terms, if we can, with what our experience with the coronavirus portends in broader perspective. Some leaders were quick in being both dramatic and dismissive about the current outbreak, when they said these occur once in a century (with the Spanish flue in their mind). No, Sir. Scientists are telling us of a different reality. As already evidenced by the multiple epidemics in the last two decades (remember SARS, MERS, bird and swine flues, Ebola), the process of Covid-19 mutating into human organism is the direct result of the overlapping of our habitat with wild-life. With the rate current rate of human population growth and our still reckless use of the environment, this mingling will only get more tangled. Not devising international contingencies will be suicidal.
In short, we are going through a sobering experience. Whether the governments will be willing to draw the right conclusions on their own initiative is a tad off the mark.
First, most will emerge bruised from this episode. They will be humbled not by their own admission, but in the people’s eyes. Coming under the limelight may be a spectacular thing in a choreographed stage performance, but being exposed just as you are under the same shower of bulbs ought to be different. It was a very short-lived field day for them if they really had one.
Second, this disease has proven, in no uncertain terms, that when a scourge is global, the solution cannot simply be national. In these circumstances, national response can be commensurately effective only if it is part of an internationally coordinated action (Just remember travelers were still roaming around the globe long after the virus scare). And it requires not just WHO advise, but standard, jointly coordinated and funded response.
Third, national governments may be the official standard units for international interaction. But, as this outbreak has highlighted and in fact bolstered, the network of people across the globe is far more intense and substantial. And, no power can roll that back.
Coronavirus helped bring state responsibility to the center stage. Governments should not misconstrue this as a validation of their indispensability. That will be a delusion. People know better now.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.