CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
Countries led by populists will fare worse in a pandemic than countries led by bland, sober technocrats who graduated from elite universities.
It’s striking that East Asian democracies have responded to the pandemic with alacrity, whereas Western democracies have foundered. It’s too soon to say whether the East Asian democracies have truly been spared. It’s difficult to make cross-country comparisons at all, at this stage, because testing protocols vary so widely, and rates of infection may yet rise. But so far, East Asian democracies have not experienced the kind of catastrophe we’re seeing in Italy, Spain, and France, and which will soon overtake the UK and the US: outbreaks of such severity that they overwhelm health care resources.
The conventional wisdom is that East Asia was better prepared because of its recent experience with SARS. This is surely correct. But is it the whole story? South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan took the warnings seriously and acted when there was still time to forestall the worst. They quickly implemented expansive and well-organized testing programs, isolated the infected, did rigorous contact tracing, and isolated the contacts.
Diagnostic capacity and contact tracing, at scale, are the keys to controlling this epidemic. If you do this quickly enough, you can avoid the lockdown; if you don’t do it quickly enough, the lockdown—and total economic destruction—is inevitable. We don’t yet know is whether the kind of lockdown Italy and France are now trying—lockdown-lite, in which people may still leave their homes to go to essential jobs and buy food—is sufficient to bring the death rate down to acceptable levels.
Countries with populists in power, or with an unusual number of them in government, have delayed and bungled their response to the coronavirus more severely than those that haven’t.
We shouldn’t confuse correlation and causation: It’s possible populists have gained purchase in response to the kinds of social and political deficits that make a country prone to bungle its response to a pandemic. But common sense suggests that by definition, populists would not be as capable of mounting an intelligent response to an outbreak of epidemic disease.
The populists’ sales pitch—their raison d’être—revolve around their promise to ignore experts and alienate elites. They’ve billed their inexperience of government as an asset. They’re outsiders—“real people.”
This means they don’t fully understand how all the levers of government work and are incapable of using them efficiently in an emergency. Populists are fantasists and magical-thinkers, not plodding, detail-oriented technocrats, and they are prone to cognitive blinders and blunders: They’re apt to believe that epidemics only happen in shithole countries, or that journalists are only making a big deal about this Chinese flu because they’re enemies of the people who are determined to make the populist look bad.
Populists tend to gut bureaucracies, like the State Department, and intelligence agencies.
By January 15, it was obvious to bureaucrats stationed in Asia that the pandemic was a serious threat to the United States and its allies. They described the measures other countries in Asia were taking to combat it. State and intelligence officials were in close contact with their counterparts in Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong, who freely shared all the information they had about this disease. They were reporting on the situation with growing alarm. The CDC was sounding the alarm, too. A normal president would have listened to them and taken them seriously.
A normal president might very well have botched the response—probably would have, in fact—but not this badly. A normal president would by this point be hanging on the experts’ every word. But populists, by definition, don’t trust or listen to experts and bureaucrats.
Populists create and thrive on chaos. When they should be paying attention to their jobs, they’re busy purging their enemies and plotting revenge. What’s more, populists divide the public to the point that action becomes impossible. This is the premise of populism, not an incidental feature. Us versus them. Real people versus the cabal of elites, billionaires, academics, globalists, media, and Jews who have screwed them over for years.
This worldview is what makes them populists. Public rancor and polarization aren’t incidental to the ideology but the ideology in action. Populists take pride in ripping apart the social fabric of a society. The hatred they engender is proof, to their supporters, that they’re keeping their promises and making the elites cry. When at last it dawns on them that the epidemic is real—and they need the public to be united, and they need its trust—they realize, too late, that they’ve lost control of the demons they set loose.
By the time populist realizes, at last, that yes, the virus is real; and no, the stories are not a plot hatched against him in the bowels of the mainstream media, he presides over a society that can no longer react appropriately to danger. Half the country no longer trusts the mainstream media—and the alternative media is off its rocker. The other half no longer trusts the President. This severely slows reaction time.
The only instinct that works in the populist’s favor is xenophobia. The impulse to ban travel from other countries is the right one. You can’t do that too soon, in a pandemic—although you can screw it up royally, as the Trump Administration did, rendering the effort not merely pointless but actively counterproductive, turning our airports into a case study that will fascinate and horrify scholars of infectious disease for the next thousand years.
It’s too soon to say, but if I had to bet, I’d predict, a priori, that countries led by populists—or with a large populist presence in their government—will fare worse in this pandemic than those led by bland, sober technocrats who graduated from elite universities.
We will see.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmpolitan Globalist.