• Democracy At Work

    The worldwide dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic have provided the opportunity to compare how well different countries have responded to its challenges.

    Already, some commentators are concluding, not only that some countries have done better than others, but – further – that some political systems have handled the crisis better than others.

    The evidence for these conclusions is said to be that a number of Asian countries – Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore – have been more effective in bringing the crisis under control than have been a number of Western democracies. While a number of European countries – Italy, Spain, France and even the UK – have struggled to contain the problem, and the US has succumbed to becoming the world epicentre of the outbreak, Asian countries have shown, it is said, how it should be done. Even China, it is said, despite being where the virus originally took hold, has succeeded in reining it in.

    The speculation is that there is something about the culture in those Asian countries, or perhaps about their political systems, that accounts for their apparent greater success in dealing with the problem. And the speculation goes further; will the differing responses and success rates persuade us that the Asian model offers the best way of running a country, and will that perception benefit China’s worldwide standing – at the expense of their American rival and of other Western democracies?

    A number of caveats have to be made, however, before such conclusions can be reached. No one doubts that a totalitarian government like the Chinese is better able than democracies to impose draconian restrictions on its population. We all recall video clips shown on our television screens of Chinese police and soldiers entering homes and dragging the occupiers out into the street, prior to being sent into compulsory quarantine. Yes, it may be effective in making people do what they are told but is hardly a model we might wish to follow.

    And, on the other side of the coin, the US – having saddled themselves with a delusional would-be dictator who is paranoid about his failures – is not really the best example of the democratic response to the crisis that we could choose. The idiosyncratic “leadership” provided by Donald Trump – with his self-serving doubting of scientific evidence, refusal to listen to advice, and preoccupation with getting himself re-elected – is hardly the best measure of a democracy’s ability to meet a crisis.

    Yes, there is no doubt that the mess, confusion and uncertainty of the American response
    will damage the standing of the US in the eyes of the world. But Trump is so much an outlier that his example hardly provides a fair test of a democracy’s capacity for decisive and effective action.

    A better and more representative example of a democracy at work must be found – so let me suggest here a candidate that will come as no surprise to most readers – our own New Zealand. This small country in the South Seas has performed at least as well as any other, irrespective of the form of government we have.

    These are early days yet, but the initial evidence suggests that New Zealand has enjoyed more success than most other countries in stopping the outbreak in its tracks – and that, despite having to contend with a high rate of cross-border travel as thousands of New Zealanders – the world’s greatest travellers – have returned home from virus-infected countries around the world.

    The necessary lockdown arrangements, the border controls, the quarantines, have all been put in place and, with few exceptions, complied with – and all with the cooperation and endorsement of the New Zealand people. Our Prime Minister, with her Ministers and senior officials, speaks directly to the New Zealand public every day on television and every afternoon to individual citizens who engage her in person on Facebook.

    The lockdown, with all its restrictions on freedom of movement and interruption of normal business activity, is supported voluntarily by almost everyone. Parliament continues to sit in a truncated form and the Opposition participates in an all-party committee whose function it is to hold the government to account. When the dust settles, is this not the model that should earn the plaudits?

    Bryan Gould
    18 April 2020

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