by Garry Kasparov
Many of what we call natural disasters are largely man-made. Modern famines, for example, may be sparked by crop disease or drought, but war and politics turn agriculture and weather into mass-casualty events. Even the hurricanes and earthquakes that exemplify the expression “an act of God” usually determine their human toll based on how well we are prepared and how well we respond.
In a crisis, we rely on government to take broader actions for the greater good, to allocate resources and compose regulations, and to enforce them as needed. In a democracy, this requires trust, a belief that our representatives and leaders know best and are looking out for us.
In authoritarian states like China, Iran and Russia, trust is replaced with coercion, quite a different model. It’s the difference between “Do what we say because we know what’s good for you” and “Do what we say if you know what’s good for you.” The key difference is that democracies fail in a crisis when the system doesn’t work. Dictatorships fail when it does.
China’s authoritarian Communist regime responded to the outbreak in Wuhan just like dictatorships always do: denying the facts, cracking down on anyone telling the truth and shifting blame. In fact, this is how dictatorships do everything, not just crisis management, but in a disaster it has especially deadly consequences.
Information is essential in a public emergency. What do to and why, where to go and how to get there. A dictatorship will only provide information that benefits itself. Functionaries and officials will act to preserve their power and push away any responsibility.
COVID-19 got the boost it needed from the Chinese regime’s response in the crucial early days when it could have been contained. They lied to their own people, lied to the world, censored mention of the outbreak, and jailed doctors for speaking out. By the time they took broad containment measures, millions of people had fled the city, taking the virus with them. That’s the real “Chinese model,” not the subsequent lockdown.
We may never know exactly how the novel coronavirus ravaging the world got its start in Wuhan. Fighting the pandemic does not leave much time for other lines of thought. While you do not blame firefighters for always being at the scene of fires, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention was researching these lethal combinations.
The deadly potential of viruses borne in bats making their way to humans via other mammals was already well-established, partly thanks to research done in Wuhan and North Carolina years ago, which included synthesizing such viruses as proof of concept. (The American efforts were shut down when the U.S. government banned funding such risky experiments in 2014.) There were also documented cases of weak safety practices at the Wuhan center. This isn’t proof that COVID-19 escaped a lab, not a market, but it’s more than enough to keep the possibility open instead of shouting “xenophobia!” when these facts are presented.
Getting to the bottom of this is important not merely for assigning blame — there will be plenty of that to go around — but so that we can learn lessons going forward. If we cannot trust anything the Chinese regime said at the start, how can we base our actions on what they say now? We don’t know how much of the medical data coming out China is accurate even today. Relying on it in any way is foolish and dangerous, the equivalent of relying on the faulty tests and equipment China has been sending out as part of its propaganda push in the wake of the virus’s deadly spread.
Nor can we put blind faith in international institutions like the World Health Organization. While I do not doubt the expertise of their doctors, like so many such groups, from the United Nations to Interpol to the International Olympic Committee, many in leadership have been compromised by China and other authoritarian regimes that see these organizations as useful geopolitical tools. One WHO official abruptly ended an interview when asked about Taiwan’s response to COVID-19, lest he offend China.
China has become a reliable and, lamentably, essential factory for the free world, but this entire episode is a reminder that dictatorships can never be trusted. Regimes that do not value the freedom and lives of their own people cannot be expected to value the lives of people in other nations. The U.S. and the rest of the free world have become dependent on brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and China, giving them leverage they have no qualms against using. That’s a lesson for next time, instead of idly hoping to go back to the status quo when the status quo is what got us here.
Meanwhile, the trust-based system of the free world is failing under pressure. After three years of President Trump’s constant lies and extreme political polarization in the United States, the only people who believe anything Trump says do so mainly to spite their political enemies. This is a catastrophic scenario when coherent action is required for the greater good. A united appeal to science and citizenship could have saved lives, but such unity is unimaginable in Washington today. The poison of hyper-partisanship kills as surely as any virus.
Instead of listening to the U.S. intelligence reports and heeding the experts’ warnings, Trump maintained his usual bluster for critical weeks, as if insulting the virus could bluff it away. This is the same tactic used by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and other autocrats eager to look tough in the face of a challenge, with similarly dismal results against the disease.
Another parallel is how Trump pushes off all responsibility onto governors, despite years of “only I can fix it” rhetoric. Putin has practically disappeared as casualties mount in Russia, handing duties — and blame, he hopes — off to the Moscow mayor and others. Autocrats don’t do bad news; they must appear infallible.
Trump enjoys starring in daily COVID-19 press conferences, embracing his role as misinformer-in-chief, giving out erroneous information and praising himself while chastising the media and state leaders.
He finally realized that millions of dead Americans might hurt his reelection chances, but the damage was done. It’s been compounded by another autocratic tendency in the Trump administration, incompetence and nepotism. Trump has spent three years surrounding himself with advisers whose only qualification is their unquestioning loyalty to him. This leads to tragi-comic blunders like the U.S. calling Thailand to ask for medical supplies only to be told that Thailand was expecting a shipment of medical supplies from the United States!
More tragic and less comic was watching Jared Kushner give a briefing on the pandemic Thursday evening. Thousands of Americans are dead, the world’s greatest experts are available, and the president’s son-in-law is lecturing us based on what he read on Wikipedia and Facebook that morning. Now the U.S. Navy is firing captains for warning about the spread of COVID-19 on their ships. Perhaps next for the administration is the “Turkmenistan model” of simply banning the use of the word “coronavirus.”
Incompetence is deadly enough on its own, but malice and corruption are never far behind in this administration. Trump has been waging war on American institutions and looking for ways to enrich himself and his cronies from the start, and this crisis will only open up more opportunities.