What is government for? Coronavirus stirs old question anew.

Why We Wrote This

The answer to one of the most basic of political concerns seems to be changing dramatically – and putting new pressures on both democratic and more autocratic governments. 

Kathy Willens/AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, standing beside Rear Adm. John B. Mustin, holds a news conference as the naval hospital ship USNS Comfort arrives in New York, March 30, 2020.

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At a time when trust in established institutions had been eroding, there seems to be a renewed sense that there are some things only governments can do. And, in crises like the coronavirus pandemic, that they must do.

Unfamiliar demands on leaders are felt with particular urgency because of who’s making them: nurses and emergency workers, ship captains or passengers, men and women wanting assurances their needs will be met amid shortages and soaring unemployment.
That’s forcing a rethink in many places. Tight-pursed fiscal prudence in Britain and Germany, for example, has given way to huge aid and stimulus packages.

But other adjustments are more difficult. Democratically elected leaders championing “small government” face new demands for the opposite – underscored, for example, by high ratings for many U.S. state governors. Authoritarian regimes, favoring central control, face a different challenge. In China, there has been extraordinary public criticism of early failings. In Russia and Egypt, the full impact of having to answer to the changing public mood is only starting. Leaders’ worries may be evident in recent moves to rein in or punish independent reporting of the scale of the outbreak.

It’s the most basic of political questions, but COVID-19 is now moving it from the philosophy classroom into nearly every corner of every country on Earth: What is government for?

And the answer where it most matters – among citizens, among the governed – seems to be changing dramatically, at least in places  feeling the worst effects of the virus. There, the immediate task of government has become acutely clear: Protect us and our loved ones, and give us the information, policies, tools, and care for that to happen.

That’s also part of a more fundamental change, at a time when trust in all established institutions had been eroding. Suddenly, there seems to be a renewed sense that government actually matters – that there are some things only governments can do. And, in crisis, things that governments must do.

There’s another, related change: Despite the reach of the internet in amplifying conspiracy theories and competing versions of events, we’re seeing a rekindled respect, and a need, for expertise and trustworthy research. For facts.

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

Whether, of course, such changes will prove enduring, once the worst of the crisis has finally passed, will take many months to answer. But the unfamiliar demands on governments and leaders are immediate.

They’re being felt with particular urgency because they’re not coming only from lobbyists or think tanks. They’re from nurses and emergency workers, imploring those in charge to get them protective gear. From captains or passengers on ships where the virus has struck, pleading for a place to dock. From men and women, old and young, wanting assurances they’ll have the food, supplies, and care they need, often suddenly finding themselves without the week-to-week funds to afford them.

Even in some developed countries – where most of the cases, or at least those publicly acknowledged, are so far occurring – that’s forcing a rethink. For Britain’s ruling Conservatives, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government in Germany, tight-pursed fiscal prudence has long been a political article of faith. Yet within days of the first, stark economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, both countries announced huge aid and stimulus packages, with the promise of more to come.

Markus Schreiber/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks about measures taken by the government to stop further spread of COVID-19 during a briefing at the chancellery in Berlin, April 6, 2020.

Similar fiscal responses are now in place or on the way in nearly all countries where citizens are feeling the impact of shutdowns of economic activity.

But however costly, in political terms, that’s often proving the easiest adjustment for the people in power.

A cry for ‘going big’

Elected leaders championing “small government,” for instance, are facing a crisis that is prompting demands for the opposite. U.S. President Donald Trump, in recent days, has been visibly struggling to square that circle. On the one hand, he has repeatedly portrayed the crisis as ultimately the responsibility of state and local leaders. But sky-high poll ratings for many state governors on the front line, in New York or Michigan, Washington or Ohio, have left no doubt of the grassroots hunger for assertive, effective, honest, and straightforward government action.

The president’s overall take on who is responsible is showing little sign of changing. Yet he did announce on Friday a federal government arrangement that he said would guarantee that no American, even the millions of uninsured, will have to pay if hospitalized with COVID-19. 

As not just a small-government leader, but a populist who has been sometimes almost flamboyantly dismissive of science, President Trump has also made another adjustment: deferring, on at least some major calls, to the scientific experts in his coronavirus task force.

Authoritarian regimes are faced with a different challenge. They do believe in strong central government, with pretty much everything ultimately subject to central control. But the impact of COVID-19 – an adversary they cannot defeat by force, much less by decree – is being felt no less by their citizens than those in democratic countries. The human response, the instinctive list of things they want from their rulers, has been much the same: Protect us; give us the information and tools and care we need. 

Even in China – which, after initially hiding the outbreak, took draconian measures to bring it under control – there has been extraordinary public criticism of the early failings on the country’s tightly controlled social media.

In other authoritarian countries like Russia and Egypt, and even in India, a democracy, but one led by strongman populist Narendra Modi, the full impact of having to answer to the changing public mood is only now beginning to hit.

All three of those countries seem likely to struggle with an inexorably widening number of cases – India and Egypt, in particular, both with huge populations, many areas of economic deprivation, and a patchy healthcare system. All three have recently imposed restraints on movement and economic activity.

But in a measure of their nervousness about what may be coming, and whether they’ll be able to meet ordinary citizens’ needs and expectations, all of these nation’s rulers have something else in common. In recent days, they have moved to rein in or even punish  independent reporting or comment on the scale of the outbreak.

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

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