COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes the Strengths and Weaknesses of Governing Systems

New global platforms are needed to cope with a connected world.

Nathan Gardels

Photo: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

As more people around the world are exposed to the coronavirus, the more the strengths and weaknesses of different governing systems are exposed. The spread of COVID-19 has also revealed both the depth of interdependence and the paucity of global institutions to cope with all its manifold connections. Above all, the pandemic underlines the folly of moving in the direction we recently have been, of “one world, two systems” in which China and the West, particularly the United States, go their own ways as if our fates are not entwined.

In East Asia we have seen how state capacity and consensually oriented collective culture have been able to rapidly mobilize against the microbes. As is well known, despite early stumbles which sought to stem the flow of information instead of viral contagion — and the clumsy, ongoing official attempts to control the narrative — the Chinese system acted decisively in a historically unprecedented manner by locking down entire cities with tens of millions of people, halting travel across the nation and pioneering digital tools to closely track infected cases.

Singapore relied on radical information transparency from the start, including public disclosure of tracked cases, the closure of schools and shut down of mass gatherings, requiring work from home, decontaminating public transportation and infrastructure and implementing widespread testing. South Korea quickly ramped up to 12,000 tests a day and even set up drive-through testing stations, which the U.S. and others are now planning to replicate. Authorities in Taiwan also employed widespread digital platforms for people to report their conditions and to keep track of cases while taking temperatures of everyone entering large buildings such as office complexes.

In much of the West, we have seen how years of budget cuts and underinvestment in public health infrastructure, especially in Italy’s weak state and the U.S., have compromised the social immune system, leaving few defenses against widespread infection by a novel virus. In America, containment efforts have been further hampered by the damaging legacy of toxic partisanship that has sought to roll back Obamacare, an already diluted attempt at universal health coverage. It certainly doesn’t help that the top authority charged with leading the battle against the microbe hordes, President Donald Trump, has a record of not believing in science. (At the same time, it must be said that the White House coronavirus task force that this week has finally deployed a new public-private partnership approach is a highly impressive data-and-science driven team.)

By contrast, those liberal democracies that built out and properly maintained their universal health systems, such as Canada, Australia, Germany and, to some extent, the U.K., are faring better.

To be sure, the story is far from over. But what we are seeing more or less confirms the conclusions of the recently released Berggruen Institute Governance Index: In terms of competence and performance legitimacy, there is no necessary correlation with democracy. Many non-democratic or authoritarian one-party systems often serve their publics better. As the Fudan University scholar Zhang Weiwei has posited, the main divide in the future may well not be over democracy and autocracy, but between good governance and bad governance.

When it comes to global coordination and cooperation to contain the pandemic, former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pointed out just how lamentably paralyzed the situation has become. The eruption of populist nationalism across the West in recent years has put the world at risk by undercutting the ability of major nations to work together as they did through the G20 under Brown’s leadership to avoid global depression in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

What further undermines that capacity going forward is a structural reality. The present multilateral institutions — the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations — are largely no longer fit for purpose. There are for two reasons for this.

First, they have lost legitimacy and efficacy because they remain weighted toward the major powers of the immediate postwar era in which they were born, and they have not accommodated the new configuration of power that is a consequence of the rise of the rest, most of all China. This has prompted China and other emerging powers to begin establishing their own sets of institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the contemplated Asian Monetary Fund.

Second, these institutions were established in the wake of World War II and the end of colonialism — their legitimacy rests fundamentally on the sovereignty of nations and they were designed to prevent conflict or war among them. As such, they are ill-equipped for the age of interdependence where pandemics, climate change, financial contagion and cyber-security cut across all boundaries.

Rather than fighting a rearguard battle to reform the extant global institutions or fall into Cold War-like divisiveness, it makes more sense to construct new platforms around the convergence of interests among the major powers — the U.S., Europe, China, India and Russia — in facing the common challenges that have become part and parcel of interdependence. While all nations should be invited to participate in these new platforms, decisive, effective and urgent action can only be executed if the governing structure reflects the real balance of power in the world today. The legitimacy of these new institutions must not be based on national sovereignty but on the common capacity necessary to meet the convergent challenges all face.

The place to start is forging a commitment to such new institutions not through some abstract discourse on theories of international relations, but through a sole focus on these convergent challenges shared by China and the United States — and build out from there.

The great question for the U.S. is whether the November elections will open up the possibility of a President Joe Biden taking this course and replacing Trump’s perilous nativism. It would also seem wise for any future administrations to move a good chunk of the $600 billion defense budget toward fighting pandemic invasions instead of building redundant overkill in nuclear capacity and otherwise arming to fight the last war.

Wang Fan, the vice president of China Foreign Affairs University has argued that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concept of “a community of common destiny” closely fits the characteristics of interdependence we have been experiencing these past weeks. The great question for China is whether it is willing institutionally to live up to its rhetoric. One must admit it has done so in the current circumstance, in a small but indicative way, by providing two million face masks and 100,000 respirators to Italy while Germany, a fellow member of the European Union, has banned export of such medical equipment in coping with its own looming crisis.

What the present pandemic, surely one of many more to come, shows, is that, for the sake of all our publics, both East and West need to be responsible stakeholders in constructing a new order that fits the inescapable realities of the 21st century.