An emergency tends to reveal the core character of national leaders, along with that of the political systems that produced them. What’s truly exceptional about the coronavirus pandemic is that it is confronting scores of countries simultaneously with the same awesome challenge. We are learning a lot about the state of global governance as a result.
In one category are the democratic populists, such as President Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Their response to the spread of the novel coronavirus has been to spew misinformation, minimize the threat and dodge accountability. Trump predicted the virus “is going to disappear . . . like a miracle.” Bolsonaro dismissed it as no more than a “little cold.” López Obrador said there was no reason for people to stop hugging and kissing, because “nothing happens.” All three resisted measures to contain the spread of the virus or called for their early removal — though López Obrador and Trump shifted their positions over the weekend.
The result? Infections have risen at a far faster rate in the United States and Brazil than in Asian countries that took the threat more seriously. In Mexico, cases are climbing quickly. With the presidents’ abdications, the burden of governance has fallen on state and local administrations, creating confusion and competition for resources.
Next come the police states, from China and Russia to Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. They, too, have a common playbook: First, lie about the numbers. Then employ heavy-handed and intrusive measures against infected people and communities. Portray leaders as conquering heroes — and arrest anyone who offers a different narrative.
Vladimir Putin’s handling of the pandemic has been as predictable as the photo op he staged wearing a bright-yellow containment suit (no word on whether he was bare-chested underneath). He claimed that Russia has managed to hold covid-19 cases to a remarkably low level, even as skeptics note that reported instances of “pneumonia” rose 37 percent in January. When a political analyst claimed the death toll was far greater than reported and compared the handling of the outbreak to the coverup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the radio station that interviewed him was ordered to remove the piece as part of “measures to prevent the spread of false information.”
The same story has played out in Wuhan and Caracas, where official reports of case numbers look unreliable and those who tell a different story are threatened or arrested. But Xi Jinping and Nicolás Maduro look transparent compared with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whose regime claims that its covid-19 case count is . . . zero. Never mind that North Korea has closed its borders, reportedly declared a state of emergency and placed diplomats under quarantine — or that, according to South Korean reports, masks are being traded on the black market and distributed to elites.
If the autocrats are to be believed, their methods have been more effective in containing the virus than those of the democracies. But with the possible — and possibly temporary — exception of China, that doesn’t seem to be true. In any case, few believe them, either at home or abroad.
A third category of nations is those democracies that have taken the epidemic seriously but reacted too slowly, in part because of dysfunctional bureaucracies and governments hamstrung by political polarization. Italy, a victim of years of irresponsible populist rule and now governed by an unlikely coalition of populists and leftists, fits that definition. So does Spain, where a weak minority government emerged from two rounds of inconclusive elections last year. At the beginning of this week they ranked first and second in the number of covid-19 deaths worldwide, way above European neighbors with more stable governments, such as Germany.
So who are the winners in this global test of governance? A glance at the trend lines on the comparative chart posted by the Financial Times newspaper makes that very clear. South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong have by far the flattest trajectories for deaths — and not included is Taiwan, a country of 24 million that as of Monday had recorded 306 cases; the District of Columbia, population 600,000, had 405.
Those Asian governments all had firsthand experience with a previous epidemic originating in China, SARS. Their governments were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously; far from ignorantly discounting the threat, they pushed their citizens to get tested and to quarantine themselves when the results were positive. Masks are ubiquitous on the streets of their cities, even among the well.
Coercion, however, has not been necessary to their success. Two of the four are democracies; the other two, Singapore and Hong Kong, are more free than Russia or China. What they show is that neither Trump-style grandstanding nor Putin-esque repression is effective against the coronavirus — but common sense and competence are.