Tyranny is fueling the coronavirus pandemic
On the other side of the world, one of the worst disease outbreaks in modern history is simmering. As of Friday, what is being called "coronavirus" (this is actually a name for a family of viruses including the common cold; medical experts are calling the actual virus in question COVID-19) had supposedly infected 75,567 people in China and killed 2,239 of them. Outside China, another 1,152 cases had been reported in 26 other countries, causing eight deaths, including recent outbreaks in South Korea and Iran. The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Friday: "Our window of opportunity [to stop the outbreak] is narrowing."
It remains to be seen whether China and other countries will be able to control the outbreak. But one thing is clear: Authoritarian political systems are lousy at dealing with disease pandemics. We see this in China today and in the United States as well.
COVID-19 originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and as Laurie Garrett writes in Foreign Policy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) horribly botched its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak: "China now faces international vilification and potential domestic unrest as it blunders through continued cover-ups, lies, and repression that have already failed to stop the virus and may well be fanning the flames of its spread."
One primary reason the Chinese government failed to contain the outbreak is because corruption and incompetence are inherent features of tyrannical rule. The CCP can't point to democratic elections to obtain the consent of the governed, so they instead rely on techniques like a massive patronage machine to cultivate loyalty. Political reliability is a major prerequisite for filling any of the millions of positions in the vast Chinese bureaucracy, which tends to inculcate a culture of blind order-following, telling one's superiors what they want to hear, and leveraging one's position for personal advantage.
At the same time, the CCP, like any tyranny, uses violent political repression to frighten the populace against challenging its rule. Both freedom of speech and freedom of the press are sharply restricted there — and anyone perceived as a threat to CCP rule gets a treatment straight out of 1984. There are reportedly about a million Uighur Muslims in horrific re-education camps in western China — essentially, the CCP is attempting to commit cultural genocide in a fit of paranoia.
The first person to call attention to the COVID-19 outbreak was a doctor named Li Wenliang, who told colleagues via social media that it looked like a SARS outbreak. This is the kind of honest competence that is absolutely vital in any rapid disease response, but tyrannies often try to suppress bad news rather than deal with the problem. So as Garrett writes, "for the so-called crime of rumormongering, Li and seven other physicians were brought before China's security police and compelled to sign a document admitting to 'spreading lies.'"
For the critical first few weeks, when aggressive quarantine measures might have stopped the virus in its tracks, the Chinese state first insisted there was no new virus, then that they had this situation well in hand — all while it continued to spread. When the epidemic became undeniable, the CCP looked like the liars they were, sowing panic as Chinese citizens wondered how bad it really was. When Li caught the virus and died on Feb. 6, heroically trying to raise the alarm to the end, flames of distrust and anger were fanned higher still — and foreign governments reasonably began to suspect they could not trust the numbers coming out of China.
Trust is a vital component of any efficient disease response effort. The population must believe that the government is not lying about what is happening, and that its response measures are based on science and reason — especially so people do not panic and try to flee, possibly spreading disease further by accident. The CCP has proved beyond any question it is not trustworthy, and is relying on yet more brutal repression, locking down entire cities and herding thousands into poorly-equipped quarantine facilities. So far these efforts have not successfully curtailed the virus' spread.
Americans should not take much comfort in our somewhat-less authoritarian system. The Trump regime's style of rule bears all the marks of typical tyrannical rule — the bureaucracy stacked with corrupt idiot stooges, the legal system corrupted to protect the president and his cronies from facing criminal charges, and inconvenient information denied by a howling propaganda apparatus.
As Michael Lewis writes in his book The Fifth Risk, the entire federal bureaucracy has been rotting under Trump rule, as he neither knows nor cares to take the most basic actions to keep it functioning. Most of the people running what remains of the American state are either committed ideologues (like the virulent racist Stephen Miller), interested parties, or career civil servants operating without official leadership. Only 35 percent of the key positions in the Department of Homeland Security that require Senate confirmation are currently filled. The department does not even have a nominee for secretary, deputy secretary, or general counsel. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has no nominee for deputy administrator or deputy administrator for resilience.
As Garrett writes in another article, "In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government's entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure." As a result, Trump's COVID-19 response has been flailing and helpless. "In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion," she writes. Recently The Washington Post reported experts at the Centers for Disease Control said 14 infected Americans who caught the virus on a cruise ship should stay in Japan for the moment rather than fly on a plane with hundreds of others and risk spreading it further. But the Trump administration higher-ups overruled the CDC, and all the passengers came back to California and Texas — the infected individuals separated behind plastic screening, but still posing an unknown risk.
Reactionaries often argue that ruthless authoritarian rule is more efficient than the democratic sort. But the world is getting a brutal lesson in how false that is. It was false in fascist Italy and Germany — the Nazi state was a chaotic disaster of corruption and incompetence — and it's false today. There is no substitute for democratic legitimacy and the patient, dull work of building and maintaining a competent, honest bureaucracy. The tyrannical idiocy of Donald Trump and China's communist dictatorship may get millions of people killed.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.