Democracy and disaster management

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By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

When US President Donald Trump recently called Prime Minister Imran Khan and offered to send some ventilators to Pakistan to help it cope with the coronavirus pandemic, it was clear Washington was reaching out to Pakistan and other countries in a bid to retain its global leadership and influence– which has lately been seriously challenged by China. 
This challenge was not limited to the provision of medical goods and equipment only, as the ability to efficiently manage the coronavirus pandemic has become the latest touchstone for the quality of systems practiced by each country. And China, which practices its own brand of socialism and a somewhat controlled democracy, has apparently successfully controlled the pandemic which had originated in its industrial city of Wuhan. 
Initially, Chinese authorities seemed confused about the nature and scale of the epidemic for about three weeks and many countries blame Beijing for even concealing and suppressing the truth about the infection. But after this initially disastrous delay, Chinese authorities decisively enforced a lockdown initially in the city and later for the entire Hubei province, which affected some 57 million people. The Economist called this a lockdown of ‘breathtaking scope and severity.’ 
The World Health Organization (WHO) commended the move, calling it ‘unprecedented in public health history.’ The 77-day lockdown broke the infection chain and within days of lifting the lockdown, China announced that its hospitals in Wuhan had no COVID-19 patients. But that was after 82,830 persons suffered from the infection and 4,633 died. 
As soon as China controlled the infection, it started sending out medical supplies and equipment to other affected countries. A train load of such medical goods was dispatched to Spain, with Chinese corporations such as Alibaba Group and Huawei shipping medical supplies to several countries across continents including the US.

Donald Trump

China’s ability to swiftly contain the deadly infection was in contrast to the indecisive and confused pronouncements and reluctant steps taken by President Trump. The US is currently leading in the total number of affected persons, which now stand at over a million with 56,000 fatalities– all rising by the hour.
Other countries with the highest fatalities include Italy (26,644), Spain (23,190), France (22,856) and UK (20,732). They are all blamed for not taking timely action to contain the spread of the infection. Their situations on ground have led to the debate that the Chinese system of governance which is not based on liberal democracy is better than the countries with liberal democracy in managing the pandemic. This conclusion, however, might be flawed as several countries with functional liberal democracies have done very well in managing the pandemic. 
South Korea, for example, swiftly took the steps necessary to control the infection and confined its fatalities to just 243 people. Not only that, South Korea also organized its parliamentary elections right in the middle of the pandemic with the highest voter-turn-out of 66.2 percent since 1992. New Zealand, another liberal democracy, also performed very well with just 19 fatalities and the spread of infection successfully controlled.

Imran on phone

Democracy and federalism in Pakistan led to open differences of opinion among provinces and between the provincial government of Sindh led by PPP and the federal government ruled by rival party PTI about the extent and severity of lockdown. 
The federal government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan favored a ‘smart lockdown’ which allowed some economic activity and livelihood for the poorest segments of society including daily wage-earners. Sindh province, by contrast, advocated and practiced a strict lockdown. India, another democracy, imposed a strict lockdown in the entire country. Although the jury is still out and experts forecast a peak of affected persons including fatalities by the end of May in both countries, the fatalities so far have been well below the high number of fatalities reported in countries like US, Spain, Italy and UK.

Despite the fact that authoritarian systems allow for the ability to swiftly mobilize people and resources, the example of China does not conclusively prove that liberal democracies are unable to manage disasters and pandemics. A closer examination will reveal that more than the political system prevalent in a country, it is probably the quality of leadership which determines the quality of response to such disasters. This is the reason, liberal democracies ranging from the US to South Korea to UK to New Zealand showed different results while attempting to manage the pandemic. 

(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.)