COVID AND DEMOCRACY PART 3 MAY 2021
To pick up where Part 2 concluded, we focused on two main points. First, the US/UK with a combined population of 401m people have suffered a death count of 730,000 people and rising whilst China with a population of 1.4bn people has suffered a death loss of less than 10,000 people. Second, why did US/UK democracy fail so badly and China’s democracy fare so much better. Leaving aside the numbers what is it about the two democratic systems that enabled Xi Jinping to do so much better than Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. It is a question of politics and priorities and procedures. In a phrase it is a question of “Getting It Done”.
Much of it has to do with the Election Cycle in the US/UK compared with the Party Procedure in China. In the US and UK, in different ways, both Trump and Johnson were distracted by electoral considerations. Let’s take Trump first; his focus was on the 2020 Presidential Election where the system focuses on the four-year sequence and the pressing need for each first term President to secure a second term of office. And things were going Trump’s way. He and his advisers were watching the election polls and feeling happy and positive. The economy was going well; a big tax cut had made the wealthy and the well-to-do comfortable about themselves and the economy is always a big issue for a Presidential Election. Trump had good figures about growth and inflation and his focus was on the good news that rising prosperity would be a big plus for his re-election prospects. And Trump was right – had there been no Covid, he would have won the Election and Biden would have lost.
But for Trump, Covid was not the issue – it was Trump’s failure to recognise that Covid was a nationwide threat to the health of the people. He downplayed Covid; pushed it to the margins; kept talking about the economy just as the health anxiety became a health scare and then an epidemic. He disregarded the medical advice; he failed to pay attention to the damage being done daily to the health of the voters. He was cavalier, irresponsible and dismissive. Trump thought that his personality would defeat Covid. Eventually Covid defeated Trump and his failings as a leader became exposed as the Election approached. He lost and Biden won.
In the UK, the issue was also electoral but in a different way. Johnson was very buoyant in January 2020. He had won two big votes. First, against the odds, he won the Referendum as the UK voted to leave the European Union. Second, he won a General Election in December 2019 with a big majority. He was feeling elated. He had enjoyed success at the highest level. But politicians are like sportsmen/women – they are very vulnerable when they are successful. As one perceptive commentator said “The trouble with success is that it conceals your mistakes”. And Johnson made mistakes. He was giddy with success and did not see, just as Trump did not see. Johnson, and Trump, were warned. They disregarded the warnings. Johnson felt invincible – the voters had just voted him back into power for five years. Things were going his way. He was celebrating his successes and did not see what was happening around him.
The UK, like other countries, was informed in a speech by Xi Jinping at the end of January 2020 that Covid-19 was a real problem and should be taken seriously. The warning was disregarded by Johnson; the danger was not appreciated because he was still in “success mode” and his mind was elsewhere. (Johnson also had personal distractions relating to negotiation about the terms of his divorce). It is also the case, as the Editor of Lancet reports, – the leading UK medical journal – that Chinese medical experts received no enquiries from the UK about Covid in January or February 2021. Johnson and the Government and the medics all failed the UK people. Lockdown did not take effect until the middle of March 2020 and the very high UK death figures have much to do with this significant delay between end-January 2020 and mid-March 2020. The UK political system failed the UK people.
The role of the electoral process in the large number of Covid deaths in the US/UK is an important question and, here, two conflicting ideas come into play. First, the absolute first role of Government is to protect its people – from war, from crime, from floods and from disease. People are entitled to be safe and to feel safe and, if safety cannot be guaranteed, then questions will be asked about the relevance of the system of government. Second, the right of the citizen to be free from oppression and arbitrary arrest. If the government is authoritarian can the society be considered free? Let us look at both issues
Looking at the response of US/UK governments to Covid can it be said with any real conviction that a death count of 730,000 shows that they protected their people? Trump was at the end of his term and ran out of time and was defeated in the US Presidential Election. Johnson was at the beginning of his term and still got it wrong and the deaths mounted. (Johnson did get the vaccination issue right but that was after the death numbers had exceeded 110,000). He hopes that by the end of his term people will remember his success with his vaccination policy rather than his failure with his delayed response to the covid warnings.
Two points emerge from an examination of the Trump/Johnson responses. First; it was slow and ineffective and many people died and many family members lost their parents, siblings even children. Second: US/UK policy was dominated by electoral influences. Trump tried to play down the threat of Covid for fear that it would prevent his re-election. He was right and his inactive Covid policy caused him to lose vital votes in a tight election. Johnson felt himself to be unbeatable and waved Covid aside with terrible consequences
The Election issue has conflicting aspects. At one level it gives the appearance of democracy because people are able to vote poorly performing leaders from office. The West talks up this issue because it is a point of difference with China where the people do not have the constitutional opportunity to vote their leaders into power or out of power. At another level, however, it forces the leaders to govern for short periods of time with their attention permanently focused on their popularity and standing in Opinion Polls. Leaders crave popularity and so often craft their policies with eyes firmly fixed on poll ratings. So, whilst Western Democracy does give its people the final word on whether their leaders remain in office, this advantage does come at a price as politicians focus on short termism. Everything is determined by what will secure popularity with the voters. And here the question has to be asked about the inbuilt weaknesses of the Western democratic system. Supporters of Western Democracy need to realise that 730,000 deaths and still rising leads to questions “Why did 730,000 people die” “Why did the mature, well oiled ‘one man one vote’ system fail so significantly the 730,000 dead and their families and friends?
Let’s look at the Chinese side. Their system of government is authoritarian rather than democratic. Does that make their system unfair, harsh, dictatorial as many Westerners claim? They see the lot of the people of China as harsh and oppressive. It is the case that the Communist Party does not submit itself to regular re-election and that counts as a negative in the West. But China rightly points out – 140m people travelled overseas in 2019 and all returned home. Why return home if China oppresses you? Why not make plans to flee if the Chinese system of governance does not give the 1.4bn people the right to change their government? Jeremy Paxman, well-known UK media man, asked four Beijing lady entrepreneurs that very question – “But you can’t vote your government out of power” and the reply came back – “Why should we want to”. If there is a voting element lacking in the Chinese system it is remedied, in part, by the wide recognition by foreign experts – including the Harvard Ash School of Government – that the Chinese people are very content with the Chinese government. See the findings of the Harvard Ash School and the Edelman Trust Index – two studies carried out by US companies that found the Chinese people were very pleased with the work of their government.
So why did China shame the West with its successful handling of the crisis? The government of China recognised the threat and acted. The West, in receipt of the same information and warnings failed to act. That is why China suffered less than 10,000 deaths and the US/UK suffered 730,000. In China lockdown was imposed. Travel was stopped. People were tested non-stop. Two hospitals were built in 8 days and all along the way the interference with normal life was imposed and explained. And one last point – the people were instructed, not asked, to carry out the orders of the Police. Whilst it appears that things went wrong in Wuhan in January 2020, confidence quickly returned as it became clear that decisive action had kept fatalities to a very low figure – the West at this time was predicting death figures in China running into their millions.
The irony is that China did in 2020 what Churchill did during World War 11. With Nazi bombers overhead, every UK household was ordered not to turn on any house lights at all for fear that house lights in the dark would direct Nazi pilots to cities and the concentration of people. Anyone who left their light was immediately arrested and placed in custody being suspected of being an enemy agent. The same decisive action was not taken by Johnson and Trump with Covid and we know the consequence. Covid was a threat that its leaders – dominated by short-termism – failed to take seriously until it was too late. The number 730,000 keeps re-appearing.
In Part IV of Covid and Democracy I will consider vaccination policies, the situation in India and the link between Covid – 19 and Asian race hate in the US.