We must not forget about climate change, the elections, homelessness— just to name a few
April 10, 2020 | Medium
Source: Our World In Data— Apr. 10, 2020 — COVID-19 infections
The infamous virus not only disrupted our physical environment, our emotional well-being, and our global economy, but it has also infiltrated every bit of our digital lives. From social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — to news outlets — New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, national television reporting — information and updates regarding COVID-19 plaster every headline on a regular basis.
The harrowing effects of the pandemic will likely persist for the next few years. We will probably see the rise of new concerns, especially economic woes, in a post-pandemic world that will compete with existing issues on attention, funding, and political will. Ushering life back into normalcy is critical for every country to prioritize, but we must not forget the conversations that were top of mind before the world went into lockdown. These issues will not simply resolve themselves.
1. Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives in December, and he is seeking re-election in 2020
Let us all be reminded of the impeachment drama in 2019 that turned the world’s most powerful nation into a 21st century political sitcom, as our leaders rotate pointing fingers and placing blame on one another. It all started when a whistleblower came forth and alleged that Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 presidential election. Soon after, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admits the office withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Kyiv to investigate allegations involving Joe Biden and the 2016 election. Following a slew of investigations, the Democrat majority voted to impeach Trump last December. The Republican majority acquitted him at the start of 2020.
Amid the drama, Trump seem to have emerged even more energized. His post-impeachment purge continues in spite of the dire situation our country is in, recently with the dismissal of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general who had sent the whistle-blower complaint to Congress. Elections were and are still happening around the globe, even though primaries have been postponed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump “an ongoing threat to American democracy,” but given the current circumstances, how likely is it that we will overlook his impeachment and brush off Pelosi’s statement? Will an economic stimulus package and intermittent aid mask his abuse of power? And will citizens openly speak up and show up on Election Day?
2. Investigations into Big Tech were at full force, but now they have skidded to a halt
Antitrust investigations against Alphabet, Facebook, and a handful of other tech giants have been ongoing last year. In November 2019, the Justice Department warned tech companies against their collection of consumer data, which could in turn increase their industry stronghold and harm competition. Small companies have found it harder to compete, and tech giants have no problem swallowing them up. Over the past decade, tech giants were able to escape regulatory oversight to consume a number of smaller companies, and they continue their expansion today (see Google’s acquisition of Fitbit). The investigations were intended to break apart their monopolistic power.
But these investigations have come to halt in light of the COVID-19 pandemic as an effort to not destabilize firms during this volatile time period. Once condemned by policy-makers, the actions of tech giants are now commended. They play an increasingly large role in the pandemic world, as people rely on Amazon for supplies and entertainment, Facebook for social cohesion, and Twitter for CDC guidelines and removal of false information. They are vital to society right now, and will continue to be, but the conversation around aligning our digital and political worlds needs to continue: should regulators absolve them of their monopolistic tendencies due to their help during the pandemic, or resume an aggressive crackdown on their power?
3. Homelessness is still a serious issue in America, and the pandemic has aggravated its consequences
The United States has sustained a severe homeless problem. According to The State of Homelessness in America, over half a million Americans were homeless on January 18, 2018, and just under 200,000 are living on our streets. There are many reasons that contribute to America’s large homeless population — one of them being the overregulation of housing markets, which conservative homeowners advocate (referred to as NIMBYs). The inability to build more homes restricts the supply and increases housing prices. The study estimates that if the top metropolitan areas with significantly supply-constrained housing markets were to deregulate, overall homelessness would decline by 13%. Policies combatting homelessness have been a longstanding debate amongst lawmakers in areas such as the San Francisco Bay.
The homeless have become especially vulnerable during the pandemic, in particular those living on the streets. Some suffer from mental illness, drug addiction and poverty, making them even more susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus. As NGOs pull out of support programs and advise staff members to go home, it becomes increasingly difficult for the homeless to obtain shelter, food, and the right medical care. Furthermore, homeless shelters are either full, closed, or too risky to consider sleeping in due to poor hygiene. The guidelines set by the CDC (stay home, wear masks, social distancing, wash hands) are almost impossible to attain, as unsheltered people don’t have access to toilets and still rely on congregate settings to meet their basic needs. Gavin Newsom, Governor of California estimates around 60,000 homeless people could end up infected with coronavirus. The pandemic exposed the seriousness of the homeless problem, from lack of available shelters to limited hygiene and medical care access. How can our country ensure the safety and well-being of these individuals during and after the pandemic? And will regulation and hygiene guidelines in homeless shelters be adjusted concurrently?
4. America’s prison system requires serious reform and progress is lagging
Today, 2.3 million people are in jail or prison. America’s incarceration rate has increased by 700% since 1970, and today retains a quarter of the world’s prison population, according to the ACLU. Mass incarceration in American reminds us that racism is still very much an issue in our country. People of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, still represent a large proportion of the U.S. prison and jail population. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, thoroughly explores the history and realities of mass incarceration as a call for racial justice in America. Since then, some progress have been made — the gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison have shrunk and the penalty for drug offenses are reduced. However, there are still long ways to go.
Currently, the overflowing of jails pose a large risk during the pandemic. In March this year, New York’s Legal Aid Society reported that 3.6% of inmates in New York City jails tested positive for COVID-19, about 9x higher than the overall infection rate in the area. Small confined spaces and the constant entering and exiting of inmates put them at amplified risk of contracting and spreading the disease. Hygiene in prison and jails are not guaranteed, and testing is limited within its quarters. Some countries have temporarily released prisoners as a result, but in America, prisoners are demanding protection without much success. Even if prison safety concerns are temporarily resolved during the pandemic, we must not forget that mass incarceration in America is inherently flawed and remains one of our greatest racial struggles. Will the pandemic urge our government to accelerate progress in this area? If not, how can citizens participate in surfacing this systemic issue within communities?
5. Refugees were severely impacted by Trump’s Travel Ban, and policies may be even more stringent post-pandemic
Prior to Trump’s presidency, the United States has historically offered its land to refugees fleeing persecution and war. However, after Trump was elected, he used security concerns and xenophobic attitudes to justify a Travel Ban, which barred people in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from entering the US for 90 days. Additionally, it also halted refugee resettlement for 120 days and indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. Refugee arrivals fell to its lowest levels ever. There are talks to expand this travel ban even more.
Even though the whole world is seemingly shut down, we should be reminded that America’s refugee crisis is still an open issue that needs to be addressed (this is in addition to immigration issues that the U.S. faces). The IRC mentions that a new travel ban policy adds nationals from Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria to the existing list of those barred from applying for immigrant visas, as well as blocking nationals of Sudan and Tanzania from the diversity visa lottery. As central governments horde more power to maintain order during COVID-19, it will not be a surprise if the administration exercised even tougher guidelines for refugees post-pandemic. How can citizens ensure refugees are protected in this world where it is easier to justify the extension of the travel ban with unsubstantiated claims? (for further reading, see the first section of Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s new book, Good Economics for Hard Times)
6. The United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union as of January 31, 2020, but its transition phase is still one big question mark
Brexit has been under operation for years, but beginning of 2020, the UK officially lost its membership to the EU’s political institutions, such as the European Parliament and European Commission. British voters also appear more divergent than ever, as the Labour and Conservative parties went to extremes — the election of December 2019 was a clash between two historically unpopular party leaders: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson’s sweeping victory accelerated Brexit and launched the nation into the transition period until end of 2020, an effort to resolve UK-EU trade agreements, law enforcement, data sharing and security, aviation standards and safety, electricity and gas supplies, and medical regulation — just to name a few.
It appears that these negotiations are temporarily put on hold as officials in Europe frantically divert their attention to supplying hospitals with adequate ventilators and keeping their citizens safe. Furthermore, Boris Johnson, who leads the Brexit march, was just released from the intensive care unit, where he was being treated for COVID-19. He temporarily created a leadership vacuum as Britain had “no codified order of succession for prime minister.” His infection emphasized how relentless and pervasive the virus has become, which opens up more questions: Will transition plans for Brexit, a highly divided initiative, still take place during a time when greater solidarity is needed? As some countries in the EU emerge high in debt, will the UK provide support? How can we protect the EU from breaking apart as the consequences become more dire?
7. The U.S. and Iran were headed into a dangerous territory, and animosity continues to persist
The assassination of Qassem Soleimani by an American Drone shook the geopolitical arena beginning of this year. Trump’s order to kill Soleimani not only brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war, but also led to the Iranian missile attack on U.S. troops at two Iraqi bases and the unfortunate mishap where a Ukrainian passenger jet was shot down, killing all passengers onboard. Furthermore, Soleimani’s attack and death on Iraqi soil sparked mass protests in Iraq against US military presence, leading the Iraqi Parliament to ask U.S. to withdraw its troops.
The tension in the Middle East has a long and gruesome history. U.S.-Iranian relationships intensified after Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. The killing of Soleimani further increased the animosity. Even with a common enemy — the virus — the U.S. and Iran refuse to unite. Iran rejected American aid and the U.S. continued their sanctions despite calls from other countries to provide relief. If a pandemic cannot forge a truce between the two countries, what will it take? How long will the animosity last?
8. Fires in Australia burned ~30 million acres and it’s still spreading
Did you remember that Australia was on fire? It still is, by the way. In the worst-hit state, New South Wales, the fire rampaged across twelve million acres, destroying over 2,000 houses as a result. More than 1,500 firefighters were dispatched to slow its spread. Some states have declared a state of emergency, and military troops, ships, and aircrafts have been involved in the efforts to contain the fire, as the smoke from the fires have vastly affected air quality. The fires have sparked numerous debates and conversations around climate change.
In addition to the fire, Australia must also take action on COVID-19. As of April 8, 2020, it reported a little over 6,000 cases and 45 confirmed deaths. Whether the fires are attributed to climate change is still up for debate, but at the very least, people all around the world were talking about it. And now, climate change seems to be a consideration of the distant future. The pandemic has delayed International Climate Change negotiations and silenced criticism towards the Trump administration for their neglect. Critics are skeptical that the apocalyptic consequences stemming from COVID-19 will incite countries to reevaluate environmental practices, but we can challenge that. How can we leverage the pandemic to educate others on the cataclysmic consequences of a natural disaster and motivate our communities to continue the conversation around climate change?
9. Hong Kong protests reverberated across the world, but it risks losing its momentum
In June, 2019, nearly 2 million people marched on the streets of Hong Kong to protest the extradition bill, which imposed that criminal suspects in HK to be handed over to the mainland china for trial. It soon expanded to four other demands in addition to the withdrawal of the extradition bill. This included the government to stop labeling protesters as “rioters”, drop charges against protesters, conduct an independent inquiry into police behavior, and implement genuine universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. Protests garnered widespread participation, leading to airport shutdowns, police interference, and sharp decline in tourism.
With the onset of COVID-19 and CDC guidelines for social distancing and calls to stay home, the protests have paused. Whether the movement will regain equal momentum following the pandemic is questionable, as successful protests require populist support and participation. Hong Kong is bracing itself for heavy economic costs that will mount after the pandemic, and if its citizens struggle to maintain stability within their state, will they have the mental and physical capacity to continue their fight for democracy? Or will they rely more on mainland to help minimize the economic suffering?
This is all without mentioning the war in Yemen, Muslim concentration camps in Xinjiang, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.
The pandemic has disrupted our lives, our businesses, our movements, our society; but, that does not mean we should pause our conversations and active participation towards building a better humanity. It shouldn’t stop each nation from thinking about how to help our neighbors, whether it’s the homeless person across the street or the country over the seas. Solidarity should be advocated over separation, social harmony over xenophobic slang. Nationalism needs to be set aside, egos should be tamed.
We are entering an altered society, and that only makes these discussions more difficult. Countries need to continue talking about these issues, and as citizens, we should too.
Sound monetary policy is as important as political bipartisanship
Mar 31, 2020 | Medium post
Ben Bernanke (Previous Chairman of the Federal Reserve); Credit: CNBC
Recently on March 27th, 2020, the United States overtook China, Italy, and Spain as the country with most COVID-19 cases. Some of us, as Americans, are agonized and fearful of what is next to come. Without doubt, COVID-19 has evolved into an epochal event that will surely stain the memories of billions.
To cushion the economic impact of the pandemic, the Fed has cut short-term policy rate to near zero and is preparing to purchase $700B in Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities. Though a pandemic is not entirely analogous to the 2008 financial crisis, monetary policy tactics run similar. In a time of uncertainty, it is increasingly important to stabilize financial markets, which affects investor confidence and ultimately households and businesses. Shelter-in-place is enforced throughout the country, and the hope is that the economic pause will be short-lived — once the pandemic passes, normal activity will resume. However, if quarantine measures extend past summer, this could lead to disruptions in production chains and increased bankruptcies for businesses. Read more on whether quarantines can go too far.
“The challenge we face is how to act with sufficient strength and speed to prevent the recession from morphing into a prolonged depression…[and] it is the proper role of the state to deploy its balance sheet to protect citizens and the economy against shocks that the private sector is not responsible for and cannot absorb.” — Mario Draghi, Italian Economist and former President of the European Central Bank
Let’s expand that view into the global sector. America is not the only country susceptible to a recession — many other countries are either already deep in a recession before the onslaught of COVID-19, or most likely entering one now. 2008 has taught us not only how interconnected U.S. financial institutions are, but also how interwoven our economy is with the global world. Because international banks purchase U.S. government and asset-backed securities, subprime mortgages (which led to the crisis) also affected global markets.
Contagion swept through the markets as banks in other countries defaulted on their debts. In 2011, when the U.S. was still trying to emerge from the recession, Greece’s budget deficit reached an all-time high, causing widespread panic of a default. The European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailed out Greece, in fear that Greece’s default will lead creditors to pull their money from Italy, Spain, and a few other Eurozone countries which had large deficits.
Imagine the impending global recession leading to a panic where financial institutions start pulling their money out of government bonds in countries with a large budget deficit. Rather than a regionalized issue, such as the Eurozone having to decide on whether to bail out one country, it will become a global problem, where many countries will need to work with the IMF to stabilize those that are hit hardest.
In other words, if a parent has 10 kids, and one of them fell into a pool, she could probably save the one child easily. But, if 6 of them fell into the pool, she may need to think about who to save first and how quickly to act before one of them drowns.
“Over 80 countries, mostly of low incomes, have already have requested emergency aid from the International Monetary Fund. — Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Chief.
To avoid a worldwide economic catastrophe, the Fed, as well as other Central Banks, will need to ensure that strong monetary policy is in place to stabilize domestic economies. I went back through Ben Bernanke’s memoir, The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath, and concluded some key lessons from how the 2008 financial crisis was tackled. Bernanke’s autobiographical account of the 2007–2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession adeptly portrays the scene by scene play of our economy as well as the complex decisions the Fed has made to soften the negative impact on Americans. It is a memoir as much as it is a commentary on America’s regulatory structures and shortcomings. In 2009, America emerged wounded from the crisis and recession, though massively cushioned by a number of policies led by the Fed. The Fed’s main job was to use monetary policy to control inflation and interest rates, and consequently decrease unemployment and increase momentum in the economy.
It is currently 2020, and with near certainty if the lockdown were to continue for the foreseeable months, we will be submerged in growing pains of relieving unemployment, fixing a crippling healthcare industry, and revitalizing small businesses. To stabilize our economy and prepare for the impending recession, the government needs to 1) take lessons from history and apply it to our monetary and fiscal policy, 2) uphold financial stability and liquidity within the markets, and 3) look past political party differences and cooperate with the Fed while fully respecting its autonomy.
1. Lessons of history should be continuously applied to today’s economic issues
Bernanke’s deep understanding of historical panics, especially the Great Depression, and macroeconomic situations led him to promote the less popular New Keynesian ideas of government spending and borrowing during the recession, as well as austerity measures during growth stages. This contrasted with Robert Lucas’s New Classical economics approach in the 1970s, which postulated that monetary policy had no effect on the economy and instead increased inflation. The approach rapidly gained popularity within the macroeconomics community and guided many economic decisions that followed.
Though Bernanke’s ideas were unconventional in macroeconomic standards, he nonetheless decisively chose to rely on his own research and understanding of history to instigate three rounds of quantitative easing (QE), where the Fed purchased large quantities of government securities and assets to inject liquidity into the economy. Contrary to Lucas’s model, the results did not overextend inflation, debunking widespread assumptions on QE’s inflationary tendencies.
Whether an economic policy is effective requires application as well as sound theories. One productive way to learn is by analyzing past programs and policies implemented during historical panics, recessions, and inflationary periods. Some policies may need to be reinstated, some may not. But regardless, the Fed should exercise its independent right to launch and evaluate large unconventional ideas based on historical extraction, rather than implement policies based on conventional wisdom.
2. Financial stability is absolutely critical to preserve the stability of the economy
Bernanke’s decision to bail out big banks is to this day quite controversial. However, given the economic downturn proceeding Lehman’s bankruptcy, it is difficult to refute that the interconnectedness of our financial system could very well generate a domino effect on all lending institutions, leading to an abysmal outcome (e.g., bankruptcies of large banks, rise in unemployment, panic runs) accelerated by the housing market crash. The most important element is to maintain liquidity in the markets, facilitating lending to businesses and individuals in need.
Small businesses are hit especially hard with the current economic shutdown, and the Fed should work with the government to ensure businesses are able to compensate borrowers for their expenses or provide necessary support for avoiding defaults. To do so, the Fed should closely monitor creditor actions and the health of financial institutions to avoid panic runs and fire sale of assets. This requires an increase in transparency on its actions, where any bailouts / security purchases are frequently and clearly communicated to the public. Furthermore, the Fed should maintain low interest rates until the economy gains momentum and stabilizes at a reasonable unemployment rate.
3. Solidarity and political bipartisanship can propel rapid progress
Lack of political bipartisanship fuels stagnation (e.g., Peter Diamond’s nomination, government shutdown in 2013) and threatens the Central Bank’s autonomy. As the Chair of the Federal Reserve, you already face a great deal of scrutiny. Not only was Bernanke dealing with the public’s lack of understanding of quantitative easing, the media’s numerous unsubstantiated criticism, and the misrepresented call to “audit the fed” in a case where the Fed is already heavily audited, he was also the brunt of attacks by politicians who lacked expertise on inflationary and asset-purchase consequences. Politicians such as Ron Paul (R) and Bernie Sanders (D) opposed his monetary approach and disrupted the Fed’s ability to promote the aggressive fiscal stimulus it needed ease unemployment growth.
As we fight the pandemic, it is important the nation sees more solidarity among the diverging political parties, the Central Bank, and our government branches in order to quickly pass legislation and continue critical progress to avoid economic chaos. Without solidarity, we will greatly impede our progress to rescue our economy in a timely manner.
The Fed, as well the central banks of numerous countries, have the responsibility of ensuring and easing the flow of credit to banks and businesses. Many of the programs that were developed in 2008 are reemerging. For example, the Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), which lets the Fed buy commercial paper directly from banks and large corporations to help facilitate lending to small businesses, has been reintroduced in light of the pandemic.
All around the world, the economic reality of the pandemic is settling in, and the need for stabilization mechanisms appears inevitable. The recent $2T stimulus package in the U.S. is a positive boost, but likely we will need more than that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. passed several fiscal stimulus packages throughout the next year. For many other countries, it is unclear whether their own reserves and domestic resources will be sufficient, and hence, it is important that the U.S. keeps its own economy afloat as to not further drag down the economies of other countries.
Bernanke made clear through his time as Chair of the Federal Reserve that the Fed’s job is not solely to control inflation, but also to stabilize the economy through a range of policies and governance. It is critical that our administration evaluates historical recessions and policies, stabilize our financial institutions, and unite to act with decisiveness rather than ambiguity. Let’s hope we’re much more prepared to combat the impending economic recession than we were to curb the spread of the virus.
Why some democracies are falling behind in curbing the spread
Mar 22, 2020 | medium post
Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic, countries continue to close borders, implement new travel restrictions, quarantine residents, and lock down cities.
Even the most liberal democracies are restricting individual freedom to protect public health and ensure the livelihoods of its citizens. Italy, whose total number of confirmed deaths doubled in a span of 5 days, was the first democratic nation to close its borders on 60 million people, the most rigorous restrictions on Italian citizens since World War II. “We are out of time,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, referencing little choice in this decision. In March, the United states followed suit as the epicenter of the pandemic shifted West. Though borders are not yet entirely closed — so far, only travel restrictions on European and select Asian countries — stringent restrictions on small businesses, corporations, small gatherings, restaurants and shops have been imposed.
Freedom restrictions by the U.S. and Italy were delayed, and ultimately enacted following panic and fear as the case growth rate and deaths continue to climb. Conte warned Italy’s citizens to abide: “we must not try and be clever.” China on the other hand, had no qualms shutting down the city of Wuhan and later the entire province of Hubei within a month of the inception of the virus. Under the authoritarian regime, citizens are used to abiding by the rules. The efforts paid off so far, resulting in a delayed growth rate of infected persons and more time for other countries to mobilize and enact policies.
Since the onslaught of COVID-19, much has happened around the world, and I am prompted to wonder:
Will countries that are currently ruled by an authoritarian government be better suited to curb the spread of the virus?
Will citizens in historically democratic nations become more tolerant of a centralized government / authoritarian rule following a pandemic?
Wuhan’s empty streets, Credit: The Atlantic
Let’s break it down:
1. Will countries that currently exhibit an authoritarian regime be better suited to curb the spread of the virus?
The argument in support of authoritarian regimes is relatively straightforward: curbing the spread of infectious diseases requires government enforcement of stringent quarantine measures and the cooperation of its citizens. In authoritarian regimes, it is more likely for the population to comply with imposed regulations.
*see note below this section for a brief history on why people in China are generally amicable to authority
Looking at China specifically, alongside individual dispositions towards authoritarian acceptance, tightened security and indictments from disobedience are also contributing factors to the population’s general compliance to authoritarian rule. This explains when the Chinese government locked down multiple cities during the coronavirus pandemic, why lawful citizens dutifully retreated to their homes without much physical resistance, and accordingly to primary sources, shaming those without masks. Even though the general public expressed their vast discontent by posting vitriolic comments and mocking memes of the government on social media, many of these posts were deleted at discretion of the State in an effort to maintain order. Freedom of speech is vastly limited, but the government experienced first-hand from the SARS epidemic how rumor and misinformation can trigger panic and dismantle response efforts led by health workers and authorities. In their mind, it was a time for solidarity, not stigma.
However, we must not ignore the issues of suppressing freedom of speech under an authoritarian regime. Journalists are quick to criticize the government for shushing Li Wenliang when he first sounded the alarm during the crucial early days of the virus. Was it wrong of the government to do this? — Yes. Did they act quickly afterwards to alert the World Health Organization? — Yes, a drastic change from its response to SARS. There’s plenty to unpack as to whether authoritarian governments are more likely to mishandle initial response to infectious disease outbreaks, but let’s do that another time. Let’s continue to focus on the control of post-outbreak spread.
From a public health perspective, authoritarian rule looks more optimistic. In contrast to democracies, it can quickly enact policies and bypass layers of bureaucracy to sponsor widespread testing and offer free treatment for infected patients. By focusing all its resources and attention to the virus, China was able to slow the infection rate.
In contrast, when Italy’s prime minister implemented similar lockdown measures in its northern territory, it resulted in chaos as thousands attempted to flee. Italy’s government (democratic by nature) was also slow to implement such restrictions, which led to exponential growth in its infected population. Only as the situation worsened did democratic nations take action to quarantine its citizens, using corporate enforcement and social media to urge them to take the situations seriously. Testing in Italy and the United States have been limited to patients with serious symptoms, and only recently has the government sponsored free testing for the virus. But still, the US is way behind when it comes to testing — 40,000 people total compared to China’s 20,000 a day as of 3/16/20 (statistics are higher today, but this references our previous ignorance of rigorous testing). As democracies fumbled to aid their own citizens and affected countries, Italy relied on China, who immediately offered medical experts, millions of face masks, and thousands of other health supplies.
Singapore, similar to China, acted quickly by closing down its schools, enforcing isolation, and conducting widespread testing. Its residents followed protocols and a forced lockdown was not necessary. With heavy government involvement and the onset of substantial measures early on, including heavy fines, clear messaging, and strict tracking, Singapore was able to reduce the infection rate.
But how do countries like South Korea, a liberal democracy itself, seem to emerge from this crisis as a paragon of successful democracies combatting COVID-19? Though it suffered an initial onslaught, it was able to quickly implement measures to contain the virus, most notably its aggressive approach to testing via a “trace and test” methodology. Normally, it would take 6 months to submit a new virus test for use, but KCDC (Korea Centers for Disease Control) authorized it within a week. Taiwan, similarly a democracy, has been successful in battling coronavirus through a “combination of early response, pervasive screening, contact tracing, comprehensive testing, and the adroit use of technology.” South Korea and Taiwan may not be run by authoritarian governments, but they did adopt strong authoritative policies to combat COVID-19 early on.
Some sources, such as The Economist, argue that non-democracies tend to be better than other forms of government at “containing and treating outbreaks of disease,” and that democracies “appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.” Their analysis, however, looks at historical epidemics and data, during periods in which lack of technological progress and sanitary measures are present. Though they claim to control for geographical location and time period, they don’t present a source for which epidemics are analyzed nor do they control for population (e.g., analysis for China, which had a population of 1 billion in 1980, compared to a country such as Nepal, a country referenced in the study, which had a population of 15 million in the same year). Countries with a larger population require different levels of governance and coordination to maintain order and implement nationwide protocols. Separately, with today’s technology and development, we may also want to control for factors other than geography and income (e.g, indexes for culture, technological progress, historical background, population).
Regardless, from the successful actions by democracies (namely, South Korea and Taiwan), we may start to wonder: perhaps it’s not the style of government that determines who is better suited to curb infection growth, but rather, the society’s culture as well as the efficiency of leadership and the healthcare industry to initiate rapid response. For example, nationwide compliance and understanding is extremely important, which is closely tied to society’s culture. During the case of a national emergency, you don’t see people in East Asia take advantage of school closures and flock to beaches to celebrate spring. Furthermore, one of the most effective ways of curbing the virus is “trace and test”, a rapid method that a handful of East Asian countries have been successful in implementing, which has currently not fully matured in the West, nor has it been prioritized.
Simply look at the disparity in testing per million people among countries:
All in all, in the case of a pandemic, I don’t necessarily believe that authoritarian governments are better suited to curb the spread. Rather, strong central authority, rapid emergency health response, societal compliance to rules, and free circulation of factual information contribute to the success of battling pandemics. For authoritarian regimes, they value order and safety over individual liberties, and hence can enact stringent large-scale policies such as quarantines that are seemingly absurd at first glance to residents in democratic countries. Additionally, they are able to channel all their intellectual, physical and financial resources to battling the virus, offering free testing and treatment as well as forcibly enforcing protocol. This approach may be important for large countries such as China, since the effectiveness of the spread requires everyone’s cooperation, and the larger a country, the harder that is to control.
On the other hand, democracies take into consideration the freedoms and liberties of its citizens and also must bypass bureaucracy, which could stall critical policies from being placed rapidly. Especially with infectious diseases, one day delay can result in an exponential number of people infected. Even though South Korea served as a successful example in containment measures, it was able to do so only through bypassing the normally cumbersome procedural barriers. Therefore, I do not believe authoritarian governments are better than democratic ones when it comes to curbing virus infections within a population, but I do believe it is critical that even liberal democracies leverage authoritative approaches. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all were able to succeed through clear and decisive messaging from authority, unlike U.K. and the U.S., where leadership wavered back and forth on what how seriously to take the the pandemic. If they continue with that approach, the future will look bleak.
*Note: China is plausibly the paragon of modern day authoritarian regimes, alongside Singapore. Understanding the population’s general acceptance of authority will require historical and cultural context, in which I will provide a brief overview. This is a very complex topic that requires further reading, and I am covering only one of many relevant factors. The Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1961 claimed 36 million lives and is arguably the worst catastrophe of modern day Chinese history. Induced by China’s poor governance at the time, millions of people were powerless against authorities and suffered as result. After Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, he launched China’s economic reform program (1978–2013) which focused on poverty reduction, and according to the World Bank, China’s poverty rate declined from 88% in the 1980s to 0.7% in 2015. With vast majority of citizens uneducated and living in rural areas in the 1950s — 1980s, they were detached from city politics. When economic reform rewarded them with a better lifestyle, education, and urban migration, the newly established city-dwellers garnered greater faith in the system. Perhaps it was that period of economic growth and established trust in the government, alongside China’s culture and Confucian values, that contributed to the general population’s abidance towards authority. If you’re interested in why Chinese people like their government, you can learn more here.
2. Will citizens in historically democratic nations become more tolerant of a centralized government / authoritarian rule following a pandemic? There exists few studies that indicate previous pandemics and epidemics (MERS, 2009 H1N1, Ebola) are linked to tolerance of a more centralized government, which I will evaluate based on voter behavior or party identification. In the short term, it is common to see stronger government intervention to ensure public and economic health. Research shows that heightened levels of stress and threat are linked to support of authoritarian behavior. If we look at other panic-inducing situations such as 9/11, we observe that individuals who were directly linked to victims have become more active in politics and exhibit increased trust in government and conservative political attitudes.
Terrorist attacks and pandemics are not congruous, but both are shocks that catalyze economic and policy changes. Still, no conclusion can be drawn on the relationship between pandemics and increase tolerance of a centralized government. However, what we do know is that pandemics have the potential to vastly affect the economy, and the economy, in turn, plays a role in voter behavior. Studies have shown that shifts in the balance of party support over time are related to economic cycles, and Kramer goes further in his research to indicate declining real income reduces the vote for the party of the incumbent president.* Given the current progression of travel bans, business closures, and stock market plunges, it is certain that there will be serious economic implications following the pandemic, which may influence voters’ preferences toward state involvement.
Another scenario I see, and also fear, is the advent of mass surveillance in liberal democracies, where governments exploit the pandemic to justify tracking of individuals (say, after we implement “trace and test”) indefinitely. Though this is more likely to occur in authoritarian regimes, liberal democracies are no exception to this threat. I’d like to be more optimistic about government intentions and assume that if the administration found it necessary to intensify tracking data collection on its citizens, it would only be a temporary measure. And following the vaccine, the government would grant privacy back to its citizens. But how confident are we that anything enacted by the state today under emergency conditions will be revoked afterwards?
Hence, even though there is a lack of evidence on pandemics directly leading to greater tolerance of a centralized government or authoritarian rule, I believe that they can, via indirect economic channels, influence voter attitudes. In the case of COVID-19, the current administration has responded with an economic stimulus package to boost businesses and mitigate an impending economic recession.** The efficacy of the package will then direct the population’s statist attitudes. However, it is also possible that following a pandemic, the government may become more centralized and increase mass surveillance in the nation without the citizens’ knowledge. That, I’m afraid, may be the forthcoming reality.
*Despite economic downturns having political costs, research does not claim any unique specification of individual response patterns. **What the current government has done is not enough. From Trump’s racist attacks on China and the refusal of many Republicans to be serious about the virus early on, the American government administration faces ridicule from the rest of the world. Instead of setting an example and uniting countries together, our ‘leaders’ point fingers and refuse to listen to the objective truth.
The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving daily: advancements in technology and research are continuously being made, and countries are frequently updating their protocols and uniting to find newer and faster ways to test individuals. Although authoritarian governments are not necessarily better when it comes to curbing the spread of the virus, all forms of government need to temporarily become more authoritative to ensure the safety of its citizens and promote rigorous testing and tracking. Governments should be cautious of how they handle the economy during these uncertain times and also of potential exploitation of the situation to enable stronger state surveillance following the pandemic. As citizens, we should also participate in the fight against the virus, supporting those around us and abiding by the rules, as well as being aware and critical of our government’s actions.