Covid-19 exposes political fault lines and similarities.
Ivan Starrymist, March 2020
In Hubei province, China, an operation in disease and population control that is many, many, many more times more enormous than anything similar that humanity has ever attempted has failed. Covid-19 is global. The Chinese population, with some protest, accepted the operation due to fear of the disease. South Korea and Italy could not immediately replicate the measures due to human rights and populations not culturally accepting of such totalitarianism. In the UK and other democracies, we are, “reliant on goodwill.” … "patients really do need to adhere to not wandering around the community if we're going to continue to slow this virus down" (Jonathan Ball, professor of virology at the University of Nottingham) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/06/uk-coronavirus-strategy-explained-five-stage-eu-document-government/
In Guangzhou, capital city of Guangdong province, extreme measure were taken in the early stages when only a few dozen cases were found. These cases have subsequently multiplied to over a thousand; a very low figure in comparison to Hubei as the result of high-level shutdown and a population willing to accept stringent measures of control. Guangzhou and the rest of China outside Hubei are going back to work now.
Meanwhile, in London today it was shopping, tourism and business as usual. Millions of spectators watch football matches in stadiums across Europe and virtually no events have been cancelled. In Guangzhou and across China the official narrative is that the worst is over and containment has worked. In London and across Europe the official narrative is that the worst hasn’t arrived yet. Both are attempting to carry on working as much as possible.
While the differences between China’s approach and those of Western governments are clear, they are united in the desire to keep the economy going and in concern about public response. This is where we can examine political fault lines.
On December 30, 2019, Doctor Li Wenliang was punished for publicly stating his fears about the possible outbreak of Covid-19. The Chinese government’s concerns included the public’s response and the economy. Naturally, conspiracy theories are arising; from the virus originating in a Chinese state laboratory to being unleashed by the USA as a trade war weapon. But it is clear that Chinese and Western governments’ responses have been conditioned by the same concerns.
What is also becoming clear is that humanity’s efforts to control Covid-19 have failed. In China, outside of Hubei province, cases are on the rise, as they are globally. Cynicism at governments’ and WHO’s responses is not helpful. What can be started now is analyses of political responses, the failures of, and discussion of how to improve them. Otherwise, an opportunity for global political improvement will be lost.
Whatever the effects of the virus: whether, as seems most likely, millions and millions will contract the disease as it spreads uncontrollably across the world; "The most concerning thing about this virus is the combination of infectiousness and the ability to cause severe disease or death … [Covid-19 has] … the potential to explode and spread globally" (Dr Richard Hatchett, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/06/coronavirus-poses-serious-threat-public-health-since-spanish/ ), or whether, as we can only hope, it will recede in warmer weather; global political institutions must come under prolonged and intense scrutiny and globalised strategies for dealing with disease must be reformulated. This is the only benefit humanity can take from Covid-19.
Medical experts are understandably cautious about the possibility that warm weather will see it recede. Either way, it will remain endemic in cooler parts of the world and therefore will return as temperatures globally rise and fall. Recovering from the disease does not provide long-term resistance or immunity, it can be contracted more than once. Isolation of nations is impossible outside of North Korea. The reality of globalisation is one obvious point of analysis, not only from the point of view of disease and contagion but from the responses of political institutions.
The WHO was wrongfooted by Covid-19 as, early on, no doubt motivated by the same concerns as governments, it attempted to calm fears about it developing into a pandemic. Gordon Chang is amongst those who have claimed that WHO has been bought by China, which wants workers to return to work and maintain the economy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPOLdgwgqX4 Whether or not Chang is correct in this assessment, control of the narrative and information will be fought over.
This is where analyses are possible and essential. Covid-19 has highlighted some similarities and exposed some fault lines between the Chinese government and Western democracies. The similarities are in the attitude that the public must be controlled and that the economy is primary. The differences are in the practical responses: China’s shutdown of a province containing 65 million people versus Italy’s and Korea’s quarantining policies reliant on public compliance. The reality is that neither have worked. Covid-19 has already mutated. There are two strains now at large. Although thankfully neither have high fatality rates, it is a reasonable fear that before a vaccine can be found, other, more fatal mutations will occur.
Moving on to consideration in analysis is the efficacy of global institutions: While WHO was praising the Chinese government’s response, the DNA sequence was not released to scientists globally until 11 February. This has already delayed the time international scientists have for producing a vaccine by over a month. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/06/meet-scottish-doctor-spearheading-life-saving-coronavirus-vaccine/
Whatever the reality of the relationship between the CCP, other governments and WHO, public trust has been lost. If predictions of vast numbers infected globally are correct, this trust will reduce further. It is too late to improve global institutional response to Covid-19. Humanity is now reliant on a vaccine being found and funding for the world’s population to receive it. The only purpose of analyses of this nature is to alter the response of governments and global institutions. This is likely to require upward public pressure.
Gordon Chang notes that pressure on the government from Chinese social media is responsible for any change from its policy on SARS nearly twenty years ago. Verna Yu writes that: “If China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus crisis” … “If Li had lived in a society where citizens could speak freely without fear of being punished for exposing problems the authorities would rather not see, and if his warning had been heeded and action swiftly taken, the virus could have been contained.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/08/if-china-valued-free-speech-there-would-be-no-coronavirus-crisis
While media freedom in the West is a major fault line between totalitarian and democratic societies, the similarities in governments’ responses reveal a common view of the public as a dangerous, irrational entity to be controlled. This is clear from the initial responses of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Maintaining the appearance of control and competence was paramount. There were no open discussions with health professionals by the British PM. To balance this criticism, this is the role that politicians have always played, in democracies or in other regimes. However, in recent decades public relations has overtaken policy-making in importance for western governments. And this, despite a higher degree of media freedom, is the greatest similarity between them and the CCP.
So some question are:
• Is the public so stupid and irrational that it must be controlled?
• If so, are governments and global institutions any better, any more capable and will totalitarian methods be more effective than measures that rely on public will?
• Could a more open relationship between politicians who are not obliged to be perfect role-models but rather human beings with all manner of flaws like the rest of us be a better approach?
To consider these questions further, consider an ideal response to Covid-19. Naturally, this starts with a freer society in China, in which Li Wenliang was paid attention to, health measures enacted earlier and the public’s awareness raised and advised. If that failed to prevent contagion and Britain found itself in the same position it’s in now, the prime minister could broadcast open discussion with medical experts. These are necessary because Covid-19 is such an unknown entity, the experts are learning and need to share their learning with the public so that awareness and knowledge is raised. More important is a united political front with all senior politicians of all major parties publicly demonstrating a commitment to work together on combatting a danger that is potentially the defining issue of the age; more so than Brexit, more so than the financial crisis, more so than any geo-political issues.
Britain repelled the Nazis because Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee stood together and overcame their differences. In 2020, the leader of the Labour Party uses Covid-19 to criticise the Prime Minister. Regardless of the merits of those criticisms, they decrease the opportunity to foster public goodwill and to open information channels. They are also unlikely to profit the Labour Party electorally, as the next election is years away.
In the USA, where the process for the next election is underway, there has been criticism of the President’s response. Despite Trump leading the way in banning flights from China under criticism from the WHO, which undoubtedly has done more than any other action in delaying the spread of the virus, and despite the President’s catastrophic failure to initiate an effective testing programme in the USA, it is placing political ambition above forming a coherent, democratic, national strategy for combatting Covid-19 that has caused the failure to control the outbreak there.
An ideal, coherent, democratic, national strategy may be impossible to define but it would require dissolving the importance of public relations in politics above direct communication with the public. This is what can be learned from the responses to Covid-19. Only through goodwill and united public efforts could democratic states have effectively taken the measures required to prevent this disaster. Getting the public onside and informed should have been the number one priority. This is where the failure occurred and this is the lesson we can learn. It is too late now and only medical science’s ability to create a vaccine coupled with a mass, global programme of vaccination can save us now.
Whether the public of Western nations would have submitted to a programme of totalitarian lockdown is unknowable. Whether, if leading politicians had broadcast open consultation with medical experts and requested, through democratic means, the public’s permission to enact the strictest measures of population control to prevent the spread is unknowable. But the alternative has failed and the technological means to enact such a programme already exist.
On the social media site Reddit, a call for the government to ban public gatherings and to close down schools and colleges received a 90% upvote. While far from a reliable form of evidence, public attitudes to submission to totalitarian measures during crises can be researched*. And, in the ideal scenario, democratic support and mass participation from an informed public in such measures offers the most effective means of restricting contagion.
* A YouGov survey in late March reported that 93% of the British public supported the lockdown that was finally enacted on 20 March. Notably, feeling on extended police power to enforce it were split.