Coronavirus epidemic reveals a world in political crisis


“There is every indication that the world will soon enter a pandemic phase,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose country has confirmed at least 23 cases of coronavirus, told reporters in Canberra. The emergence of a new sort of coronavirus case in the United States, unrelated to foreign travel or contact with someone already known to be infected, suggested the virus had defied efforts to contain it. President Trump attempted to play down the scale of the threat, even as U.S. officials warned Americans to prepare for a crisis.

Europe is feeling the jitters, too. So far, the largest cluster of cases on the continent has been in northern Italy. “If the virus spreads, and it will spread, I think any local or national politician would have to take very drastic action, and that will virtually halt the economy,” Roberto Perotti, an economist at Milan’s Bocconi University, told my colleagues. “For how long, we don’t know. Can you imagine a [car] factory if there is one case in the factory? Can you imagine it not shutting down? I doubt it.”

Exploiting the political opportunity, a slate of far-right European politicians urged the enforcement of border controls even within the Schengen zone. The open-border area that encompasses much of the continent has long been the target of nativist grievances. In the past, nationalists have inveighed against rules that permit some asylum seekers to land in Greece or Italy and make their way inland over numerous national frontiers.

Travel bans are an ineffective way to fight the spread of the coronavirus, many experts argue. That hasn’t stopped governments from issuing them.

Panic over the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the failings of a global political class. “In a way, this virus underscores the imbalance in globalization. Private-sector supply chains have become very effective. Air travel is comprehensive and never ending. So the private sector is constantly moving around the world,” wrote Steven Erlanger of the New York Times. “But any sort of coordinated governmental response is often weak and disorganized — whether on climate change, health or trade. And efforts to strengthen globalized public efforts are attacked by nationalists and populists as infringements on sovereignty.”

Some countries are handling the crisis worse than others. In Iran, at least 26 people have died and 245 are ill, including the deputy health minister and a senior official in President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet. Tehran has come under criticism for its inept and secretive approach to the outbreak, which probably enabled its spread. Autocratic governments are often capable of sweeping, decisive action in times of emergency, but Iran’s government, already under pronounced political and economic strain, further undermined its legitimacy.

The regime “can’t avail itself of the benefits of public trust, including transparent and honest accounts of the disease and its toll,” wrote the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood. “In Iran, it appears that the government has all the disadvantages of an unfree society, and none of the compensating advantages.”

In China, some of the capabilities of the country’s unflinchingly authoritarian system were on display as it quarantined entire cities and began monitoring hundreds of millions of people, leading some experts to suggest the outbreak could be fully under control there by April. But, even then, there are still cracks Beijing can’t paper over.

“The coronavirus outbreak has made it clearer than ever before that going forward, a society as large, complex and dynamic as China will not be amenable to good governance over the long haul without much more space for its press,” wrote veteran China hand Howard French. “Beijing will eventually face a choice between trying to manage a distrusting population that can only lash out when it finds no outlet for its feelings, or allowing much more room for media accountability.”

The United States, for its part, has hardly offered a convincing demonstration of transparency either. On Thursday, my colleagues broke news of a whistleblower complaint that says more than a dozen health workers dispatched to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, were sent without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear. The whistleblower alleged she was unfairly reassigned and threatened with termination after raising her concerns.

Separately, senior U.S. health officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, were reportedly “blindsided” by Trump’s decision to put Vice President Pence in charge of the country’s coronavirus task force. Pence’s public health record — as a conservative governor of Indiana, he presided over the worst HIV outbreak in the state’s history — raised eyebrows. So, too, did his decision Thursday to have all agencies route media requests regarding the coronavirus through his office, prompting Democratic opponents to warn this could inhibit the ability of medical and scientific experts to speak freely about the outbreak.

“The Vice President is starting off by not allowing the head of the [National Institutes of Health] to speak freely,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “I will try to be as precise and non shrill as possible with my language here: It is essential in times like these that experts are allowed to tell us what’s really going on in their own words.”


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