Governance in the time of coronavirus
FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras (The Freeman) - March 3, 2020 - 12:00am

As of February 29, 2020, more than 85,000 people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 2,900 people have died. Ninety percent of these were in China but the infections and deaths outside China have been increasing these last two weeks. There are suspicions of underreporting particularly in Iran and Indonesia, so it’s possible the infected are already over 100,000 people. There are already cases of infections in 47 countries and the World Health Organization (WHO) is on the verge of declaring this as a pandemic. In fact, in many reports in main and social media call this a pandemic as it is already present in four continents.

This COVID-19 pandemic is testing the governance abilities of the affected countries, and for some governments their ability to survive and continue ruling. It wouldn’t be a surprise if some political leaders in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are replaced due to their ineffective management of this pandemic.

China, the epicenter of this crisis has been both praised and criticized for its handling of the situation. Their rapid and massive isolation, quarantine, treatment, and lockdown of people and cities are impressive. The enormous amount of resources they have poured into the crisis is unprecedented. Still, China has been getting flak for withholding the early warning of doctors, for political and economic reasons that may be negative to the government and the Communist Party. An early announcement and precautionary actions would have prevented the widespread travel of more than a hundred million Chinese to the provinces and the rest of the world during the Chinese New Year. There’s also the added criticism from inside and outside of China, that their health system, even with additional resources, is still inadequate to cope with the situation, and lower-income people aren’t getting proper medical attention.

In contrast, Singapore’s actions have been idealized as the most effective. Adequate information was provided to the people at the outset of the outbreak, with the prime minister appearing in all media explaining the situation, the government’s actions, and expectations from the people. The Singapore government has the financial and medical resources to handle its seven-million population, and already with a developed country healthcare system. It is now even implementing a financial coping program to assist businesses being affected by the pandemic, which will be funded by the government.

Japan, South Korea, and Italy are developed countries that are now coping with this crisis as it reached their shores only in February. Japan’s healthcare system is top notch, as demonstrated in their nuclear plant disaster years ago, but they made errors in their protocol of the virus-contaminated cruise ship in Yokohama, as more people became infected during and after quarantine on the ship. Now, they are coping with inland infection. South Korea was faster in identifying, isolating, quarantining people, and putting in the needed medical resources. Developing countries like Iran, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines will be facing problems if they will have massive infections. The inadequate health systems and financial constraints will be unable to cope with the crisis as already demonstrated in Iran. Hopefully, the warmer weather in these countries will prevent the spread of the virus.

Experience during the MERV and SARS epidemics, and the current COVID-19 pandemic shows that information access and transparency helps in avoiding panic and getting the people’s cooperation. The trust and unity of the people with their leaders also matters a lot in enforcing and implementing health/medical protocols. These involve a significant degree of freedom and liberty accorded to the people, whether the government is democratic or authoritarian.

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