The Politics of Losing to Covid-19

Welcome to Friday the 13th. Good luck to us all on this unfortunate day.

First, a public service announcement:

The novel coronavirus is a very infectious and deadly virus, but dealing with it is not magic. It’s simple but hard. Keep social distance. Avoid spreading the virus. Wash your hands. Hygiene. And, if you have a mask that cuts down on how much virus you spread? Use it. There’s a reason everyone in Asia, where the coronavirus is being controlled are wearing them. It’s not to stop you getting sick, it’s to reduce how many other people you infect. The next few weeks in Europe are going to be rough. As our governments start locking down towns, regions, and countries, we will have to follow medical guidelines to prevent the spread. Follow those guidelines. Don’t go to parties. Don’t travel. Don’t pretend you’re special and won’t get it or it won’t hurt you. If it doesn’t hurt you, it will hurt somebody you know. Please. Be kind to others. Be responsible.

Now, Politics

You might not know, but I do have an MA in political sciences. This means that unlike with the medical side of coronavirus, where I only keep repeating the advice I heard constantly from Korean and other Eastasian public health announcements and sources (South China Morning Post, Korea Herald, Straits Times), I do have some small expertise in this thing. I’m not a complete lay-person (which annoyed my late father no end, because he had to always be right), though I am an amateur.

With that out of the way.

Why are almost all the Western democratic governments bungling the response to covid-19 so badly? Why were they so complacent? Why are many still doing so little? Why do so many of them seem to have completely ignored how statistics, exponential equations, epidemiology, and a new, deadly respiratory virus work? Why is France’s president Macron only asking Korea for advice today, on March 13, three weeks after Italy declared an emergency?

I don’t know. At this point it really doesn’t matter why a specific government completely missed the boat on implementing serious responses to protect their citizens. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that what I wrote a few days is simply true. Every government has (or had) three options. Some have only the second two options left.

  1. Accept a large economic cost to contain covid-19 and protect their citizens until a vaccine is developed and the disease becomes manageable.
  2. Delay and dither, trying to avoid paying the economic cost. Then be forced to pay a much, much larger economic and human cost to contain covid-19 and protect their citizens until a vaccine is developed and the disease becomes manageable.
  3. Fucking give up. Let the disease sweep their population. Destroy their healthcare system. Kill hundreds of thousands. Leave individual towns and counties and states to their own devises. Then survey the utter, war-like devastation of their country.

The different options lead to different political outcomes, both internationally and nationally.

I suspect Covid-19 will be remembered as the biggest public health disaster to befall all of humanity as a whole in a century. It will certainly be the biggest global challenge since at least World War 2. How nations and governments respond to this challenge, how they deal with it, will have massive ramifications that will resound through the next decades.

National Ramifications

Every government is only as effective and powerful (for good or ill) as it is legitimate. Legitimacy is a fuzzy concept, but basically it’s when people say, “Well, the council / king / politburo / president makes sure the trains run on time and good people can get on with their lives.” One could call it faith in government. Faith that the boss is acceptable.

The more legitimacy, the stronger the government, because at core government works because people believe that government works. If enough people stop believing in the government, it’s left with using a stick to beat them into submission. But sticks break and arms start to hurt from hitting.

It might be hard for folks in liberal democratic havens to fathom, but I’m pretty sure Vladimir Putin is genuinely popular with a lot of Russians. Almost certainly a plurality agree that he is “good enough.”

But what really makes or breaks government legitimacy is how it reacts when a crisis strikes. War. Famine. Pestilence. And the bigger the crisis, the bigger the test. A government that performs well (and shows themselves performing well, because government is also performance) increases their legitimacy. A government that performs poorly … well, let’s say people stop agreeing it is good enough.

And covid-19 is the biggest global test we have seen for more than a generation. 9/11 pales in comparison. This has the potential to be the Spanish flu redux.

If 60–70% of the world population gets it, we’re talking about 138 million dead at a 3% crude fatality rate. But we’re also talking uncountable more dead from overwhelmed healthcare systems: dead doctors, no beds, delayed ambulances, suspended treatments, and more. If measures weren’t taken we’d be talking that many dead by this summer, because the virus spreads exponentially.

But it’s definitely not going to be this bad because between them China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have 1.7 billion people — that’s 30.7 million people not dead. And all the other people who will urgently need those countries’ healthcare systems over the next year or two.

It’s not going to be this bad because those governments have acted swiftly and effectively. In the eyes of their citizens this is ok. Fine. Doesn’t affect legitimacy that much, does it? I mean, good. Government stopped a plague. But their citizens also look across their borders. They see the horror in Iran and Italy and do a double take. This is what their governments have saved them from. Now the legitimacy of any government that has acted decisively is increased. A lot.

But, it works the other way, too. The citizens living in countries that don’t get a handle on the covid-19 pandemic can see what’s happening elsewhere. If their government is digging mass graves or cancelling funerals or ordering thousands or hundreds of thousands of body bags … and another country’s citizens are sitting pretty, they know. They know and they are angry. And then when grandma dies, well. Aggregate that and the legitimacy of any government that has fucked up tanks. And the more it has fucked up, the more that legitimacy tanks.

And when faith in government collapses, well, that’s when a government collapses.

A government without legitimacy has only a stick, and like I said: sticks break and arms start to hurt from hitting.

Some National Futurology

  • Korea, China, Taiwan, HK, SG, Vietnam … all of their governments are probably going to be stronger. Possibly much stronger, depending on how badly other countries botch this job.
  • Japan is too early to call. Not certain how much covid-19 they have (might be a fair bit of undertesting), but they will probably have to postpone the 2020 Olympics. This kind of international event is always a big prestige project and they have (had) a lot riding on it. If it is postponed, that’s a loss of prestige and prestige translates almost directly into legitimacy.
  • Most of Western Europe’s liberal governments are screwed. They’ve been too slow and complacent. They talked about the economy for too long. There are hours of soundbytes of them worrying about money when lives were at stake. They didn’t check in with Eastasian success stories in a timely manner (recall, France’s Macron only called the Korean president today). Their members of cabinet and other senior politicians are sick. With their thousands of cases, no matter what they do now, they will have thousands of dead. Their citizens will ask, “Why do we have so many more dead than Korea? Than China? Than Italy?” Some governments will fall this year, but the ruling parties will certainly be wiped out at the next elections. Expect pundits talking about the dates when epidemics started, when opportunities were missed, how many people each decision killed, ad nauseam. The electorates, viciously angry for a reason, will elect populist and rightwing governments en masse. Le Pen will take over France. I can’t call Germany yet. Ordnung und disziplin will become the name of the game.
  • Italy’s government might, weirdly, get out relatively ok. They’ll be the first to start recovering. They never suggested they would give up keeping the whole population from getting infected. They’ll be winning the war while other neighboring countries are still struggling and thousands are dying. But, they’ll also remember that they were offered international aid by China before they received aid from Germany or France. This will probably increase their skepticism of the north-westerlies. A long shot, but not impossible: they ditch the Euro and reintroduce the lira. (Edit 14.03.2020: added FT link, lira guess)
  • Slovenia’s outgoing left-wing governing coalition fucked up royally, but the parliament is putting a right-wing government in place tonight. I expect curfews and lockdown starting tonight. Even if the government declared full-on martial law, but managed to stem the virus, it would see its popularity rise immensely. The SDS is already the largest party here. If it does well on this crisis, it will have a free hand to reshape the country over the next 6 years. And, because this is how faith in government works, legitimately.
  • Israel and Croatia, and some other Central European countries with their strict and swift border closures might end up much strengthened.
  • Russia, if it’s numbers are true, and if it maintains control, will see Vladimir Putin even stronger than before.
  • I can’t say much about Iran. I really don’t know enough. The fact is that its response was immensely hampered by years and years of hostile American sanctions.
  • Ireland is introducing tougher measures than Great Britain. Their government’s legitimacy is going to depend on a comparison count: how many dead per capita.
  • England has, from what I can see, been absolutely laughably complacent. Scotland has been introducing tougher measures. Wales and NI, I don’t know. They held a football match before a 54,000 strong crowd yesterday. Their NHS has been stretched to the breaking point by ten years of right-wing cuts. They’ve kept on talking about the economy, even as it became clearer that nothing they do will stop this year being the year the whole world had to pretty much put itself onto a war-against-the-pandemic footing. Whatever they do now, they’re going to have an utter disaster starting in 2–3 weeks. The support for Scottish independence will certainly grow. A significant number of right-wing voters will die. Their prime minister Johnson, who was banking on delivering an orderly exit from the European Union, will see his and his government’s legitimacy tank. I literally can’t call what will happen beyond that, except that things are going to be terrifying.
  • Finally, Usania, the big one. The United States of America. This is going to be a complete fluster-cuck. Their response has been so disorganized, so complacent, so all-round pathetic, that it is beyond belief. Their government’s communication has probably spread the virus more than slowed it down. Their president’s eternal re-election rallies have probably spread the virus to thousands or tens of thousands of people. Watching the USA over the last two-three weeks, it is clear that there has been a complete failure of central government. With possibly hundreds of thousands of dead in the world’s richest country, this is going to completely destroy the legitimacy of their government. Their president Trump’s chances of re-election will certainly tank not just because many people will desert his banner, but because so many of his supporters may literally die. This is such a mess that I cannot even begin to make reasonable predictions. They have left it so late, the situation is so bad and disorganized … I don’t know. It’s going to be a show to watch, that’s for sure.
  • Other countries … sorry, but this article is already a little too long.

International Ramifications

I for one hail our new people’s democratic overlords. Joke, but there’s a grain of (mildly terrified) truth in there.

Complementing legitimacy on the domestic stage is influence on the international stage. The more influence a country has, the more it’s government and companies and citizens can act the way they like, the more everyone within that country benefits.

Influence has two components, prestige (soft power) and guns (hard power). And just like with sticks (or policefolks’ truncheons) when it comes to internal power, getting your way internationally just with guns is hard. Because guns jam and trigger fingers get tired.

Prestige lets a country get their way without threats. It pulls people in. K-Pop makes Korea hot and attractive. It’s popular and young people from around the world flock to Korea, learn Korean, and buy Korean. Hollywood beams the American dream around the world. International humanitarian assistance, good trading deals, literature, advanced technology, a strong economy, and more build prestige. The more prestige, the more impressive a country looks. The more citizens, including rulers, of other countries want to emulate it. Wheels within wheels.

And prestige also comes from defeating a hated enemy. Both the Soviets and the USA have quite rightly made a big deal of how they defeated Nazism.

And now all of humanity has a new, globally hated enemy.

Covid-19.

I wonder how that RNA-string wrapped in capsids and lipids feels about what we think of it.

The countries that contribute the most to fighting covid-19 at home and abroad will gain the most prestige. Citizens of countries they help will look to them with gratitude. Citizens of countries that failed in their fight will look to them with longing and envy. People everywhere whose relatives survive because of their assistance will never forget it.

That is a lot of prestige. That is a lot of soft power gained.

The countries that contribute the least to the fight against covid-19. That do not help other countries. That lie about their cases. That export the virus. Whose citizens die in large numbers. Whose healthcare systems collapse. They will be watched and noted around the world. The citizens of other, safer countries will look on in horror and pity. And sometimes hate.

That is a reputation in tatters. Prestige crumbled. Soft power in tatters.

A country without prestige has only guns. And guns jam and trigger fingers get tired.

Some International Futurology

2020 is a true year of danger at a point of juncture. I can’t make firm claims, except that I am quite certain historians in 2030+ will point to it as a major landmark in world history.

  • If China manages to keep itself covid-19 free and exports a lot of protective gear, medical supplies, hospital beds, medical teams, and know-how, its prestige will increase by orders of magnitude. People will forgive their early attempts to downplay the coronavirus and remember the lives saved. Opponents of China will play up frothing conspiracy theories and repeat over and over how China started it all, but depending on how China’s competitors deal with their internal epidemics, this might not matter much. China’s reach will increase. More people will learn Mandarin. China’s economy will grow. China’s cultural products will spread. China will gain steeply on the US. It’s belt-and-road projects to link Eurasia will gather steam, propelled on the backs of doctors and medicines. Central and Southern European countries will be grateful to China if it helps them. More countries will attempt to emulate China’s authoritarian development model. Freedom of speech will decline further. Surveillance will increase.
  • The EU as currently structured is going to be in trouble. This is something that makes me very sad, because I applaud the aspirations of the European project. I feel strongly European and wish for actual cohesion and inter-country solidarity. Internationally it has proven itself too slow and cumbersome to deal with a large, fast-moving crisis for a second time after the 2015 migration-refugee events. This makes it look like even more of a non-entity on the international stage. Internally, if it fails to help its poorer and weaker neighbors, it will be the second time it has failed them after the great recession of 2008 and the derogatory treatment it meted out to the countries many English writers called the P.I.G.S. That time it prioritized French and German private banks over the well-being of Mediterranean citizens. If the Mediterranean countries receive more medical assistance from China than Brussels, this is going to build an even larger reservoir of hostility there against the Northwest. Internal finger-wagging against smaller member countries that reacted against covid-19 faster than Paris or Berlin has already started filling that reservoir. Finally, this year we will have another massive recession. If Berlin tries to preserve the euro and their own economy over those of member states like Italy, we might well see countries leaving the eurozone. I can’t call details, but I am confident to suggest that the influence of Brussels will decline.
  • Britain’s hope to be a new global player looks set to go down the toilet if it botches the covid-19 response. Right now it seems to be moving even more slowly than France or Germany, but if its results at the end of the epidemic are even a little bit worse, its prestige will suffer an incredible battering. That said, this might be the perfect time for its government to embark on their brexit voyage. The whole world’s economy will be in the toilet, so neither its citizens, nor the citizens of other countries will be able to tell whether things are terrible because of brexit or covid-19. In this way, the epidemic is a bit of a blessing in disguise for the leaver conservative revolutionary government.
  • Germany and France’s international prestige will fall. It’s only a question of how much, depending on how they handle things compared to Korea and Japan. Within Europe, their behaviour towards their EU neighbors will have the biggest impacts.
  • Switzerland is at risk. Their whole reputation rides on safety and stability. Their economy rests on open borders and cross-border workers. If lots of people die, they will look unsafe. If borders are closed, their economy tanks. The Swiss model won’t look so good after this crisis.
  • Russia, if it manages to keep the lid on coronavirus, will come out looking better than it looked going out. People and governments around the world will see that not only does it support it’s allies like Syria (despicable despots though they may be) right down to the bone. It also keeps its own citizens alive.
  • And here’s the really big one. The United States of America. Thus far their response to covid-19 looks like the absolutely worst one of any major country. Lies. Damned lies. Prevarication. Cover-ups. Lack of testing. More lies. Budget cuts. Failure to pass any measures to protect its citizens. Inability to close schools because that would mean children wouldn’t get food. Inability to give citizens time off. Absolute and utter inability to protect its own citizens in any way. In the eyes of the rest of the world, the shining city on the hill is crumbling. The giant turns out to have feet of clay. Combined with the strident moral tone it adopted as the leader of the free world, it now seems to be saying to the citizen of every other country in the world, “we give you freedom. Freedom to have nothing left to lose.” Economic liberals around the world could point to thatcherism and reaganism and bushism and so forth as something that worked. Well. The only question now is how badly the crisis will unfold. At this point, it’s America Last. At this point, it’s up to the US to decide how far they want their prestige to fall. And without prestige, the economy suffers, and when the economy suffers you have to ask yourself … how far will your big guns get you now? It turns out that shooting a virus doesn’t work really well and a bit of butter in the form of public health might have been a better investment than yet another invisible bomber plane. I have absolutely no idea what will happen, but as a foreigner looking in on Washington’s response thus far, I have a hard time not thinking “decadence”, “decay”, and “decline.”

To summarize, the covid-19 war is now China’s to lose. As for the USA, it looks like it’s choices against covid-19 range from horrible defeat and becoming an infectious threat to the rest of the world and a painful, grinding war that salvages any shred of dignity. What this means in an international context, I cannot even guess. I can only repeat, future historians will write many many books about this year.

That’s It

As I finish writing this article, my town of Tolmin has just announced its first confirmed covid-19 patient. I have barely left the house in days. Today the shut-in begins. As of 14:00 there have been over 4,000 tests that found 141 infected in Slovenia. All schools and public institutions are finally closing. An outbreak at a school has infected at least 6 teachers and 5 children, but final numbers haven’t been shared yet. Shops were raided tonight (unnecessarily). Shoppers are being asked to buy more Slovenian milk and dairy products, because we’re a net exporter and the borders are shutting down. A new, right-wing government headed once again by Janez Janša of the SDS is due to be sworn in tonight. I’m expecting curfew and quarantine around the country from midnight.

I’m going to try to write about covid-19 in general less for the next few weeks. We know what’s coming. Lockdown. I’ll try to write a few more stories instead, keep folks diverted, keep them inside, keep us all safe.

Battle is being joined, and we are all on the frontlines. It will be hard, but we can still do it. We can defeat covid-19 together.

Health and peace, everyone. May all my dark forecasts be wrong.

—L.


Repeating the public service announcement:

Fight the virus. Keep social distance. Avoid spreading the virus. Wash your hands. Hygiene. Stay home. Use a mask to protect others. The next few weeks in Europe are going to be rough. Follow medical guidelines to prevent the spread. Don’t go to parties. Don’t travel. Don’t pretend you’re special and won’t get it or it won’t hurt you. If it doesn’t hurt you, it will hurt somebody you know. Please. Be kind to others. Be responsible.

to share a thought