Coronavirus drives competing global ‘playbooks’

Why We Wrote This

Democratic and more authoritarian governments have adopted many similar measures to address COVID-19. But it’s worth watching for where they diverge – including steps toward tighter controls on dissent and support for coordinated international response. 

Zoltan Balogh/MTI/AP
Military police officers patrol at a market in Budapest, Hungary, March 31, 2020. People currently may only leave their homes for work or to purchase essential goods.

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When it comes to COVID-19, autocratic and democratic governments alike were slow to respond. For the former, merely acknowledging the scope of the epidemic risked denting their image of strength. For the latter, initial reluctance was more about upending lives and economies.

But if governments worldwide are now adapting in similar fashion, two areas remain murky. One involves national politics. China, for example, has broadened an already wide array of electronic surveillance measures. Hungary gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán open-ended emergency powers. Egypt forced out a Western correspondent who reported the government was understating COVID-19 cases.

The second involves international political ramifications. With the United States having retreated, and Europe initially fumbling, China and Russia launched high-profile initiatives to help Italy. Now, the European Union is moving more assertively. But the wider international response remains a question, especially regarding war-ravaged, vulnerable countries and the some 70 million people worldwide fleeing hardship.

The United Nations secretary-general, who seeks $2 billion in aid, called this week for united action. “This human crisis demands coordinated ... and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies,” he said, “and maximum ... support for the poorest and most vulnerable.”

For hundreds of millions of us across the globe, much of life as we’ve known it is now on hold. Not so, however, politics. Or geopolitics.

And in recent days, some striking patterns have emerged as governments – autocratic and democratic, mainstream and populist – deal with a public health challenge every bit as novel as the COVID-19 virus itself.

With few exceptions, they’ve been playing catch-up, in part because of an initial political reluctance to take steps widely accepted as critical in limiting the terrible loss of life: testing and tracking those exposed to the virus and promoting “physical distancing” or even full-scale lockdowns to stem its spread.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

For autocratic governments – those, for instance, of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Egyptian military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – or populist leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, merely acknowledging the scope of the epidemic risked denting their long-projected image of strength, self-confidence, and control. 

And not just for them, but for many free-market democracies like Australia or Britain, Italy or Spain, the initial reluctance was also about upending people’s everyday lives and bringing their national economies to a grinding halt.

But the result was broadly the same: a significant delay before acting to keep the number of cases from overwhelming the capacities of caregivers.

Now, with each passing day, the imperative to act has been setting in for more countries. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a lockdown of all India’s 1.3 billion people, setting off a flight on foot of huge numbers of migrant workers across the country.

Russia has become the latest example of a tightening of restraints. President Putin announced a few days ago that this week would be “non-working," with the country’s nearly 150 million people urged to stay home. But with the Kremlin still insisting there was “no epidemic,” many took the announcement as simply a week’s holiday. So on Monday, the mayor of Moscow directed all but essential workers to remain in their homes. The prime minister urged regional governments to follow suit. 

Parting ways in key areas

Politically, for now, there’s been no price to pay for the delays. As in wartime or national emergencies, the initial popular response has been to pull together, recognize the need for extraordinary measures, and, for the most part, support their governments.

In a video message, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself in self-isolation after contracting the virus, enthused about the country’s uniting in response to his stay-at-home directive. In a clear reference to a 1980s remark by then-Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher that any country was just an amalgamation of individual citizens and families, he said that this crisis had proved that “there really is such a thing as society.”

In Europe, polling has shown an initial boost not just for Mr. Johnson, but for French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and, in the hardest-hit European Union state, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. President Trump’s approval rating, too, has ticked upward.

But if governments worldwide are now adapting in similar ways to the pandemic, there are two areas where the picture remains less clear – one involving national politics, the other international.

The first concerns authoritarian states, where there are signs the crisis could be used as cover for further tightening controls on dissent. In China, an already wide array of electronic surveillance measures was increased to track people’s movements and contain the virus.

In Hungary, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is poised to impose an open-ended state of emergency allowing him to rule by decree. He also wants prison sentences for anyone publishing “false information” about the epidemic or his government’s response. Egypt last week forced out the correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper after she reported that President Sisi’s government was understating the numbers of COVID-19 cases.

And the international political ramifications of the pandemic are still playing out.

For at least two major countries – China and Russia – the initial response has been out of a familiar playbook. Especially with the United States having retreated from its previous leadership role in such crises, both the Chinese and Russians have launched high-profile initiatives to provide assistance to Italy’s hard-hit public health system. 

Yet after an initially fumbled response, the EU has begun to move more assertively to frame a shared response. As with the fallout from the 2008 economic crisis, the European Central Bank has now vowed to do “anything it takes” to deal with the financial effects. There have also been efforts to coordinate the procurement of urgently needed equipment like ventilators.

The still-open – and potentially serious – question is whether there will be a wider international response.

Reports emerging of the first cases in war-ravaged Syria and Afghanistan are a reminder that COVID-19 may before long spread to dozens of states with less developed economies and less resilient health care networks, not to mention the some 70 million people worldwide fleeing conflict or economic hardship.

With this in mind, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week issued a $2 billion appeal for international aid. This week, he called for everyone to "act together."

“COVID-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations,” he said. “This human crisis demands coordinated, decisive, inclusive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies – and maximum financial and technical support for the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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