A crisis, according to self-help and leadership books, reveals a lot about a person’s character. The same is true of the character of a nation. Since the last pandemic began to spread outside of China in 2020, countries have responded in different ways to the challenge. There was wit, inflexibility, incomprehension, and sheer incompetence. Diversity can be a beautiful thing. But not when it comes to fighting a pandemic.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. There was supposed to be more uniformity in the response. After the 2003 SARS epidemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) presented new guidelines for responding to such outbreaks. These regulations are legally binding, and 196 countries signed the framework agreement. Unfortunately, as Selam Gebrekidan reports in The New York Times: “Dozens of countries are breaking international regulations and ignoring their obligations. Some have not reported the outbreaks to the organization, as required. Others have instituted international travel restrictions, against the advice of the WHO, and without notifying global health officials. “

Let’s take a look at some countries, China, South Korea, Italy and the United States, to see how the diversity of responses to the current coronavirus crisis shows the best and worst that these political systems have to offer.

The pandemic begins

China has treated the coronavirus as if it were an outbreak of political dissent. It has deployed the power of the state to eliminate the infection. It has censored dissident voices. And, as is often the case with blunt force approaches, it has had some success. While the virus is rapidly multiplying worldwide, it appears to have been contained in China.

But there have been some troubling side effects. After some initial confusion, to put it charitably, the government quickly moved to close the epicenter of infection in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. China reported the first cases of “unusual pneumonia” to the WHO on December 31 last year, the new disease was identified as a coronavirus on January 7, the first death occurred in China on January 9, and Wuhan was quarantined in January 23)

That two-week period between the first death and the announcement of the quarantine may seem like a long time. But on January 24, the government still reported only 830 infections. And, in some quarters, China was criticized for overreacting by closing everything from schools to factories. However, a week later, the number of infections had risen to almost 10,000. Quarantine methods would not show much effect until mid-February, when new infections began to stabilize. On February 18, Beijing reported around 72,000 infections. A month later, it had only reached around 81,000.

The government had centralized authority to enforce the quarantine. Shuttered internal transportation, canceled Lunar New Year celebrations, and closed Shanghai Disneyland. He deployed drones to warn groups of people gathering in public to disperse and go home. He put millions of uninfected people into what amounts to house arrest, allowing only one member of a family home to go out every other day.

The government also tried to censor early reports of the new disease. Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, posted the first warnings about the coronavirus on social media on December 30. The police brought him in for questioning and forced him to sign a statement that he had made “false comments” that had “seriously disturbed the social order.” He later died of the disease.

Quarantine methods produced their own losses. As Human Rights Watch points out:

A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one cared for him after his father was quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being rejected by various hospitals due to concerns about the cross infection. A mother desperately pleaded with police to let her leukemia-affected daughter pass through a checkpoint on a bridge for chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease was killed from the balcony of his apartment after he was unable to access dialysis health facilities. And at least 10 people died after a quarantined hotel collapsed. ”

Citizens and journalists who have been trying to tell the full story of China’s coronavirus war still face censorship and harassment.

The Chinese government’s actions were not arbitrarily autocratic. “China’s leaders failed from the start, but in a short time they acted much more decisively than many democratically elected leaders to date,” Ian Johnson writes in The New York Times. “Authoritarian or not, they also want public approval. Chinese leaders may not stand up to voters, but they also care about legitimacy, and that also depends on performance for them.” And it’s not that democratic countries that ultimately They followed the example of China to put their decisions to the vote.

Meanwhile, the success of China’s approach is due both to the public’s sense of responsibility and to the government’s autocratic methods. Tony Perman, who was quarantined in Shanghai, writes: “Indeed, the reality of authoritarian control, the subordination of the individual to the state or the collective, and the pressure to conform made the widespread change in habits more feasible and acceptable, even if it is due to fear. of remuneration. But there was a palpable ethos “all for one and one for all”.

The South Korean way

Even before South Korea experienced its first coronavirus case, Korean firm Kogene Biotech was preparing its test kits for production. Soon after, the South Korean government gave regulatory approval for use in the country.

The first cases in South Korea originated in China, which sparked significant anti-Chinese sentiment that had been dormant since the resolution of the last trade dispute in November 2017. However, in mid-February, a much more significant outbreak The disease could be traced back to one of the many cult religious sects in the country, and infections rapidly increased to thousands.

Very soon, the South Korean government switched to trial overdrive. On February 26, the country began driving tests. By March 9, nearly 200,000 people had been tested for the disease. The government is also using, more controversially, a GPS-based phone app to track down those in quarantine and make sure they maintain their self-isolation. Rigorous triage has sent all but the worst 10% of those infected to recover at home, easing strain on the medical system.

As with China, there were some initial missteps, such as when the Moon Jae-in administration prematurely declared the virus contained in mid-February. But the hyperconnected country has been able to practice social distancing with relative ease as people went online to work remotely, order food, and keep in touch with friends.

The South Korean approach also seems to have worked. The infection rate has stabilized and the death rate remains very low, less than 1%. Instead of the draconian quarantine that China implemented, South Korea has relied on technology, a rapid response aided by ppali-ppali culture (fast-fast), lots of testing and monitoring, and a general spirit of compliance.

Italian fiasco

European countries have responded very differently to the virus. Several countries, including a number that had previously been so hostile to immigrants, moved quickly to close their borders. Germany has been characteristically blunt about the situation, and Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that 60-70% of the population will likely become infected before the outbreak ends. Finns began preparing for the worst in January, including taking steps to allow people to get communicable disease insurance in the event of quarantine.

However, the most affected country has been Italy. As soon as two Chinese tourists to Rome tested positive in late January, Italy declared a state of emergency and stopped flights from China. When the virus reappeared, just outside the northern city of Milan, the patient was originally thought to have been infected by a colleague returning from China. But the colleague tested negative. The virus, in this case, probably came from Germany.

The real problem was neither China nor Germany. It was the Italian hospital that mishandled that initial case. The victim, according to The Washington Post, “sought medical attention multiple times, starting on February 14, but was not diagnosed until February 21 (after infecting his wife, hospital staff, several patients, and others).”

Two other factors have exacerbated the crisis in Italy. There is a tradition of mocking that many Italians ignored the initial blockade declared in the northern region to clutter railway stations and flee by any means. One woman even paid more than $ 1,300 to take a taxi from Milan to Rome. Furthermore, Italy has the second highest proportion of older people in the world: 23% of the population is over 65 years old. Only Japan has a larger population. This helps explain the high mortality rate of the disease in the Mediterranean country. In China, the death rate is 3.8%. In Italy, it almost doubles to 7.3%.

In a direct comparison between South Korea’s widespread trial and follow-up approach to Italy’s attempted blockade, the former appears to be much more effective.

American exceptionalism

Donald Trump has been an exceptional leader in addressing the coronavirus – exceptionally incompetent. It has exemplified the proud tradition of American exceptionalism, according to which Americans believe they are an exception to the rules that apply to the rest of humanity.

There have been five stages of American exceptionalism when it comes to the coronavirus.

Stage one: it won’t happen here.

Stage two: it is happening here, but it is the fault of the foreigners.

Stage three: it’s happening here, but it won’t be as bad as other places, so we don’t need to take the necessary precautions.

Stage Four: It is happening here, and it could turn out to be a problem, but it is better to approach the developing crisis by chance rather than at the coordinated federal level.

Stage five: Uh-oh.

Trump has been the leader of the pack in all five stages. On January 22, just as the Chinese government was preparing to quarantine Wuhan, Trump said of the prospects for a coronavirus outbreak in the United States that “we have it fully under control.” He is a person who comes from China, and we have him under control. It’s going to be OK “.

After initially praising Xi Jinping’s harsh response to the crisis, Trump and his allies changed course and began to blame China when infections began to escalate in the country. Rather than follow South Korea’s lead and make sure test kits were available, the Trump administration wasted the opportunity. By the time the test kits shipped, it was already late in the game and those first kits were, in any case, faulty.

David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times: “The Trump administration could have started using a test run by the World Health Organization, but it did not. It could have removed regulations that prevented private hospitals and laboratories from developing rapidly its own tests, but did not. Inaction meant the United States lagged behind South Korea, Singapore and China in the fight against the virus. “

Trump has finally realized the seriousness of the problem, no doubt as a result of having close friction with infected people at the Conservative Political Action Conference and with a Brazilian delegation that visited him in Mar-a-Lago. But he has acted erratically and dangerously. Their ban on travel to Europe was carried out without consulting the Allies, and the Americans quickly returned from Europe at the mercy of unprepared airport security.

But perhaps the most disturbing failure has been a lack of federal coordination, with different messages coming from different parts of the government and states that let themselves handle things as best they can. Governors have clashed with the president, mayors have clashed with governors. In his latest clearance, Trump told governors not to expect federal assistance when it comes to acquiring the necessary fans, but to “try to get it yourself.”

Get it yourselves. That kind of message is terribly appropriate in a country without national health care. With a message like the one coming from above, it’s no wonder that Americans are stocking up on rice and toilet paper, like people around the world, but more specifically, weapons and body armor as well. If it is “all for one and one for all” in other countries, in Trump’s America, it is “all against all”.

This is what happens when it runs on a platform dedicated to “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon put it so colorful. First, you get deconstruction when Trump takes office. So you get destruction when Trump’s henchmen go to work. Finally, when all the competent people have been escorted out of government, you get uh-oh. In this sense, the coronavirus is nothing new. Americans have been living in the uh-oh stage since November 8, 2016.

* *[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]

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